In his lifetime, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to countless numbers of people, first as a minister of the Gospel, then as a leader for civil rights and often as both. He spoke with the simple people and he treated with the great people, the famous who came across his path, whether they were popes or presidents, kings or prime ministers. To whomever he met, his message was the same: service, faith, fairness, dignity, brotherhood. One way or another he gave a variation of the same thought. He said: “Everyone has the power for greatness, not for fame but greatness, because greatness is determined for service.”
It was not, it was never easy to do: to extol justice in a world that denigrated it. Yet he spent the years of his brief adulthood doing just that. He was only 39 years old when he was killed by a sniper as he stood on a hotel’s second floor balcony in Memphis, Tenn. The day before, he had unknowingly preached his last sermon to an eager congregation straining to hear his every word. At that time of his life, he had seen and heard enough to make a strong man weak and cry out in despair. And when he got up to speak in the church, he was pondering his plan for another march on the dederal capital in Washington, this time on behalf of poor people, which was to commence shortly. While in Memphis he also planned to offer his support to striking African-American sanitation workers who were not being treated fairly or justly. There was much he had done and there was much he had to do—and there was no time to pause or be fearful.
There was much to give Martin Luther King pause and reasons to be fearful. As often happens when one becomes a prophet, whether through chance or circumstance—or duty—the demands that such a vocation requires are daunting and may (and often does) cause one to reconsider or possibly turn back. Perhaps, at times, like the Old Testament prophets, Dr. King may have felt this way. Like all of us, he was not a perfect human being, but he was perfect in one respect: he knew that he could not shirk this chance, this circumstance, this duty. He knew that if he had to fight for anything, it had to be justice. He started out fighting out for justice not only for himself, but for everyone who shared the color of his skin and in time, through experience, prayer and reflection, he would come to realize that the justice he had fought hard for had to be fought on behalf of everyone, whether they shared his skin color or not. His life had taught him that.
It is hard to believe that 48 years have passed since his time, more years than he ever got to live. When he was born on Jan. 15, 1929, he was born into a segregated world. In 1986—some 18 years after his death on April 4, 1968—his birthday would be designated as a national holiday. That accomplishment was 30 years ago and it was done despite the still considerable opposition from people who continued to oppose the very idea of civil rights. And 40 years after his death (in 2008), an African-American was elected to the nation’s highest office. Well before that time, segregation had ended, but the ideals of service, faith, fairness, dignity and brotherhood he had talked about and had worked toward are still far from fruition and seemingly unreachable as ever, despite the gains and advances that had been achieved.
Dr. King knew that the work of God as well as the work of man is never-ending; the arc of justice ever needs to be bent but at the same time, we cannot be broken in the process. He is often remembered for the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech and for his last sermon where he declared that he might not “get to the mountaintop.” But there are other words of his that are pertinent now and need to be reflected upon, especially in these tense times, when racial concord is nearly fractured and the threats of terror harms our peace: