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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2023

January 16, 2023


Yesterday marked the 96th birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He gave his life promoting the cause of civil rights. Although he would have been honored to have a holiday named after him, Dr. King would have stressed that the observance of the holiday was really about the importance of human rights and dignity — causes about which he was passionate. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King said:


In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Although he was successful in helping rid the country of the scourge of segregation, he would likely stress that the promissory note about which he spoke in 1963 has only been partially redeemed. In recent memory, we have seen racists run down human rights supporters with their cars, fatally shoot innocent worshipers in their churches, and storm the Capitol Building carrying Confederate flags. We can do better. The struggle for equality, be it racial or gender equality, is one that must be continually pursued. Human capital is too precious to be squandered.


One of the most enduring principles Dr. King taught was that lasting change is only brought about through non-violent means. He stated, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.” He added, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” He was convinced that America would only live up to the ideal that all men are created equal when love replaced hate. He stated, “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Today’s difficult political environment is proof that Dr. King was correct. Dr. King’s response to the violence we witness today would be the same response he made decades ago. He preached, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time — the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”


There are ample reasons for Americans to be concerned about the future of the country. Incivility and intolerance are on the rise. This incivility will continue until we replace hate with hope and replace fear with understanding. Dr. King stated, “With patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the levelling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.” He insisted, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”


As we seek to create a better world for our children, we shouldn’t confine our efforts within national borders. Nearly four centuries ago, John Donne recognized that truth when he wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Unfortunately, bells are tolling around the world from Ukraine through the Middle East into Asia as well as in America. These death knells need to be replaced by another sound — the sound of freedom. Songwriters Gloria and William J. Gaither captured this sentiment in the lyrics to their song “Let Freedom Ring.” In part those lyrics read:


Some have walked through fire and flood to find a place of freedom
And some faced hell itself for freedom’s dream
Let freedom ring wherever minds know what it means to be in chains
Let freedom ring wherever hearts know pain
Let freedom echo through the lonely streets where prisons have no key
We can be free and we can sing, let freedom ring


Dr. King concluded his “I Have a Dream” speech expressing his belief that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He believed that we could “stand up for freedom together.” When that day comes, he said, “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

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