Martin Luther King Jr. was a wise man. I have read many of his speeches and other writings. His words are as true, as practical and as important today as they were when he composed them. This week marks the 50th anniversary of his best-known speech. King addressed the crowds at the Great March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Some say his extraordinary speech that day changed the course of history. Here is a lesser-known excerpt from that speech:
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
His writings and speeches prove his brilliance. But I believe that the real genius of Martin Luther King Jr. is beyond the words. The words themselves would have been pure rhetoric were it not for the actions that accompanied them. King could not have steered the civil rights movement by words alone. He said himself “that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
A study of King’s life and the movement that he inspired reveals that the real genius was in the actions. In describing a similar freedom struggle, Nelson Mandela noted that it “was not merely a question of making speeches, holding meetings, passing resolutions, and sending deputations, but of meticulous organization, militant mass action, and, above all, the willingness to suffer and sacrifice.”
I’m stunned by the clever and courageous actions of the non-violent civil rights protestors. The boycotts, marches and sit-ins brought attention to the depth of racial injustice in ways that no speech could have done. This week I was reminded of the influence of the lunch counter sit-ins when I watched such an event replayed in a superb movie called “Lee Daniel’s The Butler”. The scene is well portrayed. Watching a reenactment fifty years later, one is shocked by the violent response to this non-violent protest. One is disturbed that such rules existed in the first place. It filled me with grief and shame.
Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my greatest heroes – in part because of the things he wrote and said – but also because of what he did. In my world right now, I feel like there are very few leaders who actually get things done. Do you think it is fair to say this? True, there are not enough people who use their words to advocate for causes of social justice. But there are even fewer yet who take the steps to organize, to act and to persevere in pursuit of freedom, justice and equality.
This week, many of us will reflect on the life and words of Martin Luther King Jr. I hope we reflect on his actions as well. He acted based on what he believed. He believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It cost him his life. But it changed his society. I feel like a coward in comparison. Injustice persists at every level and in every part of our own society. If, as King said, its uprooting requires “strong, persistent and determined action” then may God grant me the courage and conviction I need to be part of such action.