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. Continue reading