As we celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it is important to remember the vital role he played in history while highlighting his devotion to human and civil rights. King was not a traditional leader—he often took the road less traveled, played the long game, and pushed forward ideals that were unpopular at the time. This year in our polarized world, it is important, now more than ever before, to remember Dr. King’s humility, vision, and grace. I believe we should reflect these core tenets of his character in our behavior toward everyone we meet.
Dr. King is most known for his non-violent civil rights movement that began in the southern United States and permeated through every corner of the world. On the occasion of his assassination, he was organizing sanitation workers to support fair labor standards in Tennessee and speaking out against American actions in the Vietnam War. King believed at his core that any threat to justice erodes the moral fabric of our social contract, a contract to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of race or circumstance. He knew that every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. He felt that in a society much is given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them. It was no easy matter to conceptualize, and equally as hard to operationalize.
King, like many other trailblazers of his time, died a very unpopular man. Ridiculed by many for his actions being “unwise and untimely” or too revolutionary, and by others for his not going far enough. But even at his lowest, with few in numbers at his back, he persisted anyway. Understanding that a key to great leadership is intellectual humility; recognizing you don’t have all the answers and can learn from every person you meet.
Dr. King often stood in the gap of justice and injustice, pushing us toward a more just world, bit by bit, championing the notion that to make change you will have to do the hard work, even when you don’t get the microphone. While incarcerated in a small jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, he penned letters to the public, underscoring his commitment to combating injustice: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He goes further to say: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham....We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Dr. King, as he often did, was giving us a masterclass in being a leader during difficult times, while understanding that he was living for something bigger than himself. Being a Drum Major for justice sometimes calls for you to lead the band, even when the path is on shaky ground, and requires faith in a goal not yet seen.
King is often remembered for his oratory brilliance. His most iconic speech was undeniably “I Have a Dream,” given on the steps of the Lincoln memorial during a culmination of action in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the event aimed to draw attention to continuing challenges and inequalities faced by African Americans almost a century after emancipation.
In this speech, there are many notable takeaways, but often a certain phrase is overlooked, which runs to the core of the movement and of MLK himself. This phrase encompasses the value of grace and promise. During his speech, Dr. King stands tall and, peers out into a crowd of over a million people, and before he says his most remembered words of “I have a dream,” he states his most impactful message that often goes unnoticed: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.”
In other words, in the symbolic shadows of our forefathers we stand, we sign a check that cannot be returned, signed by the sacrifices of many to be cashed for light and freedom to the future. These merciful and subtle words were a reminder to the American people that it had promised (via the law) freedom and equity to all people under its protection, and that this promise could not be returned for insufficient funds. Dr. King’s words remind us that we all hold a responsibility to each other, to bestow our unwavering and unequivocal responsibility to justice.
These character tenets of Dr. King remind me of our community at VOUS Church. United by grace, going into the night. Many of our core values are steeped in the cultural virtues of the civil rights movement. Being a light in dark spaces is a call for many Christians battling situations where only Christ can guide our footsteps. The view that we have of MLK today was lightyears away from how he was perceived at his death, even by some of our civil rights legends, many of whom were disappointed and, even more, felt betrayed. Yet Dr. King stayed the course, due to a strong understanding of himself, God’s calling on his life, and family support. These ideals gave him solace and discipline to keep going. This level of determination is found only by devotion to faith, not by the perspectives of the few; likes and follows of your immediate circle; the populism of a fleeting moment in history.
To be remembered as Dr. King is today, he had to give up the idea of being loved by man, for a purpose greater than himself. King’s call pushed him to the limit and, ultimately, cost him his life. He was willing to make that sacrifice out of love for his Creator, his fellow man, and to the cause of justice in his time. He led with love, humility, vision, and grace. May we go and do the same.