This Monday, we will celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when he was only 39 years old. He would have turned 90 this year. This is the perfect time to think through the legacy and the lessons we should take from his too-short life.
He delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. About 250,000 people gathered that day: black, white, young, old, Northerners and Southerners, to be a part of the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."
As I note in my book, "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own": "King's experience as a preacher and speaking thousands of times provided him with cadence, rhythm and emotion to connect with his audience. His speech did not simply address the problems at that time, but provided an expanded view -- a higher goal -- for which our country could reach. Rather than focusing on condemnation of the administration and complaints of unfair treatment, King focused his speech on reaching higher and making progress together."
He often drew on the imagery from well-known Bible passages to communicate with his audience, and this speech was no different:
"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. ... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ... that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
It would be impossible to fully appreciate King without understanding the influence of his faith and his background of Biblical knowledge. His father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for four decades, beginning when his son was an infant, until seven years after his son's assassination.
Brought up as the son of a Baptist preacher, MLK Jr. the future civil rights leader must have spent countless hours listening to sermons, songs and testimony. Their influence is evident in his speeches and writings. His speeches conveyed to their audiences that they could and should be more and do more. His message was inclusive: that a better future was possible if we worked together.
I have heard a lot about a "national day of service" leading up to the holiday, and I find the phrase confusing. If the holiday is to commemorate King's life and his impact, then the call should be for a life of service, not just a day.
We all have opportunities to serve, in big and small ways -- helping our families, sending money overseas to help others less fortunate, serving on a board or teaching Sunday school.
Service need not mean serving on the board of a foundation. It can also be more personal, like shoveling a driveway for a neighbor trapped at home after a snowstorm, helping someone by opening a door when they have full hands or volunteering at a local school or library.
Parents, it might mean focusing on children when they need encouragement and catching up at work later.
As a friend's mother says, "Do today your nearest duty." Her point is that there is always too much to do in life, and it's all about priorities.
While, on some days, we know it might be easier to do less, we also understand that, as members of families and communities, we have a responsibility to be involved, to be active and to help others. Service stems from our ability to connect and see others as human beings who, while fully flawed, are worth our time, energy and focus.
Service makes a difference -- to those helped and those helping.
Let dedicate ourselves to lives of service, not just a day of service.
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