Many images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement are ingrained in our minds. There is the image of Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech with the Washington Monument and thousands of supporters in the foreground. Then there is the picture of Dr. King marching from Selma to Montgomery, arm in arm with Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis and others. We are still haunted by the image of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis on the evening before his death
Today, we often see Dr. King’s image on T-shirts, church fans, commemorative plates, and on silver coins, like the one I carry in my pocket at all times. While these mind pictures will always be a part of us, if we are to appreciate the depth and extent of Dr. King’s wisdom and influence, we must make his thoughts his ideas, and his message a part of our lives as well.
The vast majority of people had never heard a man speak like Dr. King. Who could dispute, however, such admonitions as, “The time is always right to do right,” or “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools”?
In his proclamation making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, President Ronald Reagan said, “The majesty of his message, the dignity of his bearing and the righteousness of his cause are a lasting legacy.” His legacy is now woven into the fabric of America.
Although some Americans may not celebrate the MLK holiday, all must recognize that there was something special about the man that it honors. Only one other American, George Washington has been so honored.
There may be those who find little significance or importance in the celebration of the King holiday. It may be that your circumstances are so bad, or your problems so great you feel that whatever Dr. King said or did 60 years ago is far removed from current conditions. But believe me, no matter what condition you are in today — good, bad or somewhere in between — what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said and did has affected your life.
America has changed since 1955, when Dr. King started his steep climb to the mountain top, since 1968, when he proclaimed that he had “seen the promised land.” It is true that we have some of the same problems now as then. But no one can deny that fewer obstacles, and thus more opportunities are afforded to all Americans. The “promised land” is not, nor will it ever be a perfect land.
But attitudes in America have changed. Some changes have been gradual. Some have been grudging. Some have been painful. Few have been complete. But most changes have been for the better. Even the fact that the life and works of MLK are celebrated throughout the country is evidence that times have changed.
African-Americans hold high elective offices. And an African-American was elected president for two terms. African-Americans vote freely and without incident in every state in the country.
But you don’t have to look at big events like the MLK holiday, or legislation. In our everyday lives we find that people are kinder and more cordial. Recently, I saw a yard sign in a rural community that said “Kindness works. Pass it on.” I believe that many Americans are doing that today. It is common to hear people of different races address each other with titles of respect or to witness courteous acts. This too, is a part of what it is like to live in the promised land.
On Jan. 20, 2020, MLK Day, the U.S. Navy announced that a Naval Aircraft Carrier was being named the USS Miller in honor of Doris Miller, a black woman who at age 19, while working as a mess attendant, performed heroic acts during the Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. This is the first instance of a Navy ship being named for an African-American sailor in the history of the U.S. Navy. This act represents a changed attitude that is the result of the life, work, and teachings of Dr. King.
As President Reagan said in his proclamation creating the King Holiday, “As we rejoice in his achievements and mourn again his untimely death, let us emulate the profound faith and the deep love for humanity that inspired him. Let us work without tiring for a world of peace in which justice and freedom prevail.”