What is it about Martin Luther King Jr. that makes him such a great American figure? He is held up as a gold standard for standing up for civil rights, he is put on par with Gandhi, some might even say Jesus. He still has a massive influence on billions of people around the globe. Dr. King did participate in radical civil disobedience – but so did thousands of others. He even died a martyr which does get one noticed, but again, thousands, if not millions of people have been martyrs of sorts in their own way, even if it was not broadcast on television. Why did he strike such a cord with so many and what did he really stand for?
Martin was an amazing orator. It wasn’t really his vocalizations – his style was kind of preachy and repetitive in it’s rising and falling tone, line after line. It was his words. They spoke to all of us. The accompanying imagery of the civil rights era certainly played a key role in winning hearts and minds, but even without those, it’s hard to not be moved by Martin’s words. He chose his words carefully, he used personal stories, he started with his values. What parent can’t relate to wanting their children to have the same basic rights and privileges that other children enjoy? That speaks to the value of equality, opportunity, and justice. What grown man can’t relate to the indignity of being called “boy” as a reminder of a lower station in life? That insults the values of self-respect, personal responsibility, and disregards any achievements. As a minister he spoke with a passion for his religion and called on the moral authority of God to override man made laws that were unjust. He appealed to our compassion when recalling those that had been jailed, beaten, and killed before him when they were simply insisting to be treated as any other human.
Martin Luther King Jr. was able to touch on the values of nearly every human on the planet in his speeches: he beautifully combined the two top priorities of both conservatives and liberals – authority and empathy, respectively. He did this consistently, unapologetically, and persistently. He did this while keeping his language civilized and his logic intact. His driving force was not fear. He was not a reactionary – unless you consider it a reaction to the injustices that began since before our country was founded. Yes, it cannot be denied that Martin was an exceptional American and an inspiration, however, we still don’t necessarily get his message quite right when celebrating his life.
Martin would be the first to say, “it’s not me, it’s you”. He did not want to be seen as a godlike figure, he wanted to motivate, wake up, and inspire those around him to share in the hard work he did daily. He called out moderates that stood and watched and waited. He encouraged us to look around and at ourselves to see how we fit into societal roles that condoned the oppression of another human due to racism. He knew that since someday he would inevitably stop walking this earth, we needed as many people as possible to recognize – and act on- the moral compass inside ourselves. He asked something of us, but continued as a tireless example. There was no “neutral”, no “moderate” when it came to civil rights – either you were working for equality or against it.
This is the true message. We still look to one person, not just to be a leader, but to be a demigod. Many thought Obama would “save us” and are gravely disappointed in his inability to walk on water (or even follow through on commitments). They may think, “if Obama isn’t getting us on track then all is lost”, and with that attitude, they would be correct. No one person is going to fix what’s wrong with this world; we have to work together. The first step is being able to talk to each other. The message is that we need more messengers, messengers willing to take action if with nothing else but their authentic words.
Take a tip from Martin, keep a civil tongue but don’t be afraid of passion. We probably don’t need to be quite as loud as he was for everyday conversation – speeches are meant for crowds – but it’s ok to have strong feelings and express them. It’s even ok to let your fellow humans see your vulnerable side. One of the most poignant parts of the Letter from the Birmingham jail is King’s sense of helplessness and distraught when his children need explanations of blatant racism. He was tongue tied, inelegant and perhaps embarrassed, ashamed, scared, tired, angry – a whole host of human conditions that we can all find ourselves in when confronted with personal injustice and struggle. Share your values and ask others about theirs; find your common ground. Every time you can connect, even for just a moment, you and your discussion partner inch toward one another. Your brain gets activated to see their perspective and they to yours. The end result is a better understanding and many times, a more peaceful attitude towards each other. We have far to go together and no one to take us there but us.