It will have been 94 years ago this month that Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta. One of the greatest Americans to have ever lived, King devoted his life to the struggle for civil rights, a struggle that continues to this very day.
In both word and action, he had a profound and immeasurable impact both at home and abroad. Today, as we honor his life and his memory, we note a few ways in which the rest of us can follow the example of this great man with these five important life lessons.
“I’ve been to the mountaintop.” His letter from a Birmingham jail. And, of course, “I have a dream.” Through his writings and speeches, King outlined a vision of America that was inclusive, where the color of a person’s skin had no importance compared to the content of a person’s character.
We remain woefully short of the reality King envisioned, but articulating that vision empowered others to dream along with him. Reading or re-reading some of those speeches, letters and essays is a reminder that all of us can lead others through the power of carefully chosen words.
Take the long view, but take it quickly.
The man who famously spoke of the long arc of history (and how it bends toward justice) also spoke of the fierce urgency of now. He understood, and made it clear, that the struggle for civil rights was born of centuries of struggle.
But he also understood that this fight must be fought today, in the here and now. He was a restless man who did not take his time on earth for granted. It seems impossible, given his enormous accomplishments and influence, that he was a mere 39 years old on April 4, 1968, when he was shot and killed outside a Memphis motel.
A movement is more powerful than an individual.
Had he “only” been a writer, King would be an important American figure. Had he merely given powerful sermons, we would still speak of him today. And yet, he was so much more than that, in large part because he mobilized thousands of people, and inspired millions more, to act. He did so through persuasion, through the careful and hard work of convincing people one by one that this struggle was everyone’s struggle.
“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” he once said. Not for nothing were a nun and a rabbi among those standing behind him when he gave his famous speech at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The impact of King alone would have been large, but the impact of King’s movement was transformational.
To describe some of the challenges King faced as “setbacks” is to woefully understate how difficult they must have been. His family was threatened. His movement was challenged in and out of the courts. Friends like Medgar Evers were killed before, of course, King himself paid the ultimate price for what he believed.
And while he was often discouraged, he kept up the good fight because he knew there was really no other choice—and he encouraged others to do the same, no matter their ability. “If you can’t fly then run,” he once said. “If you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Love your enemies, but hold them accountable.
Throughout his life, King held true to his faith, and to his core principle that, in the end, love will conquer hate, no matter how long it takes. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” he famously said. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
But before you go posting that to Instagram, keep in mind that he was also a shrewd political operator, one who was able to bend President Lyndon B. Johnson’s arm (and ear) on the Civil Rights bill, as dramatized in the film Selma.
And in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail—which you can and should read in its entirety on this and every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—he wrote of his disappointment with white moderates, especially those in the church, who he felt did not do enough to advance the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
Near the end of his life, he wrote that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Which is perhaps his greatest lesson of all: When we come across something that is wrong, it is not enough to simply keep your head down, content to know you’re not perpetuating the wrong. You must take action and right the wrong.
It isn’t easy, but, as King reminds us, it’s what will ultimately define us. And wouldn’t you rather be remembered as someone who took action for what’s right?
About Louis Wilson
Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children.