Guest Commentary

A life of achievements fit for a King

The enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. centers on his faith in the inherent goodness of the human spirit.

Because King’s focus in the 1950s and 1960s was largely on securing equal rights for African-Americans in the U.S., we may be tempted to tell a story that begins there and ends with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

On the other hand, some may say that King’s legacy manifested itself in 2008 with the election of this nation’s first African-American president, which, in part, is true.

But the totality of King’s legacy is much more broad and far-reaching.

King challenged the U.S. government to make good on the promises that our forefathers made when they declared independence from Britain. He was convinced that the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” not only applied to blacks in America but to all of mankind.

The entire Civil Rights Movement was, in effect, an elaborate experiment testing whether the U.S. government and the American people were committed to the ideals espoused by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Consequently, through the triumphs of the movement, the U.S. government gained legitimacy and a standard of what to expect from the government was established.

Moving beyond the Civil Rights Movement, what makes King’s message so powerful is that it is completely transferable.

It transcends race, ethnicity, gender, age, economic status and sexual orientation. Through King’s legacy we are taught to be intolerant of inequity, injustice and human suffering, regardless of who is being mistreated.

Unlike various other civil rights leaders and groups of the 1960s, King welcomed the support and participation of white Americans as well as men and women of all ethnicities and races.

He impressed upon people the reality that if one group suffers injustice, we all suffer.

As King stated in a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

With his words and actions, King promoted a sense of solidarity and oneness among Americans that can be observed in this nation’s children. This will undoubtedly increase with each generation.

King was often criticized for his timing and lack of patience. In 1961, during a commencement speech at Lincoln University, he addressed this issue of timing, saying, “(There is the) myth of time advanced by those who say that you must wait on time, if you just wait and be patient, time will work the situation out. They will say this even about freedom rides.  They will say this about sit-ins; that you’re pushing things too fast—cool off—time will work these problems out. Even a superficial look at history shows that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless effort and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.”

With this, King reminds us that change is never easy, but if the outcome is liberty and justice for all, the struggle is always worth it.

Christine LeVeaux-Haley, Ph.D., is the Interim Assistant Dean of the Honors College and may be reached at [email protected]

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