On Monday in the U.S. we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King led the civil rights movement in the U.S. from the 1950s until his death in 1968. A Baptist pastor, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, he is perhaps best known for his civil rights march on Washington D.C. in 1963 where on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he delivered his famous speech, I Have a Dream, to a crowd of 250,000.
“I say to you today, my friends, 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 one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
I get goosebumps every time I read his words. He is such an inspiration and one of the people most responsible for the sweeping social changes of the 50s and 60s, achieved by inspiring the discussions that led to the social changes that we now enjoy today.
Yet, he was one man. Often we look around at what is going on in the world and we don’t like what we see, yet we don’t take actions to change it. That business with Boko Haram in Nigeria is very distressing, we all agree, yet there seems no clear way to help, personally. It’s not that we don’t care or are unfeeling. What can we learn from this great leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., about the process of one person creating great change?
Take Personal Responsibility
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, which at the time was a deeply segregated society. When he was 15 and again at 18 he worked summers picking tobacco in Connecticut where he was astonished at the social equality. In a letter to his parents, he wrote, “We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to… I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.”
His experiences in Connecticut inspired him to dream that the South could be a place of racial equality, as well. Later in life, King recalled, “I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.”
Is there any issue that you find personally troubling? What would it look like if you took responsibility? My husband Michael often speaks about how there is always so much more that each of us can do. Spiritually, when there is suffering and lack in the world it is not simply someone else’s problem, it is our problem, as well.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Love, not Violence
Greatly inspired by the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi, King, and his wife visited India in 1959. During the Montgomery bus boycott, he stated that Gandhi was ‘‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change’’.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK’s civil rights actions were not appreciated by segregationists in the South and he subsequently received many death threats. In the winter of 1955, the King family home with infant daughter Yolanda inside was bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. Addressing the mob that gathered there to defend and protect MLK, he said to them, “If you have weapons, take them home. If you do not have them, please do not seek them. We cannot solve this problem through violence. We must meet violence with non-violence.”
It’s easy to take sides and justify all manner of behavior because your cause was just, or your argument correct. However, if you have damaged or hurt another person, how can you maintain that you were right? Karen Berg, my mentor, reminds us, “…to simply embody the kindness we want to see in the world.” We should fight for what we believe in, fight to make our world a better place, but in that process, we will ultimately be more successful if we remember to treat even our opponents with human dignity and respect.
Having Great Desire
In Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous I Have A Dream speech he says, “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.”
He deeply desired that his children would grow up in a society that exemplified equality. Kabbalistically it is explained that desire creates a vessel for the blessings of the Creator. The greater the desire, the larger the vessel. Interestingly, it is when we experience great lack, such as MLK was experiencing regarding civil rights and equality, that we have the greatest desire. Along with lack, opposition also strengthens desire. MLK had no shortage of opposition.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
The challenges in life are what we can use to build our vessels, in order to receive blessings. The Zohar explains that desire is the mechanism that draws the Light. Without desire, blessings remain in a state of potential. Every action must be coupled with desire. (For example, if someone is doing all the right actions and yet their effort is not paying off, it could be due to a lack of desire.)
The greatest lesson we can take from the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is to grow our desire. His dreams were not censored or edited back to what seemed possible. His desire to see a radical change in the world created that change and everyone today benefits from his work. The truth is that we all have unimaginable potential, beyond what we can comprehend.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
Knowing that we can all do more and that each of us has the power to change the world, what is one action, that you can take today, that will impact the world positively?