Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

I spent some time with the reading about the life and writing of Martin Luther King, Jr., today.

First, some few quick facts about Martin Luther King Jr.  He was pastor, speaker, civil rights activist, and leader.  He was imprisoned 29 times, and assassinated before he turned 40.  As of the year 2000, he is one of two Americans, along with George Washington, to have his birthday celebrated as a national holiday.

Here’s what I took away from my reflection.

Beliefs come first

I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past few years on this simple, powerful framework:

Beliefs → Actions → Results

This framework means that choosing the right beliefs is crucial.  Our beliefs come before our actions or results, and they dictate everything.  If I want to change my outcomes, I have to start with my beliefs.  And, if I want, I can change my beliefs.

Dr. King clearly agrees with this idea.  In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, he speaks first about all the beliefs he has rejected, then details the ideas he accepts:

“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. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. ”

-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,

He then connects this idea to encouragement and action:

“This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.”

Several of the articles I read today emphasized the care Dr. King took in defining his two core beliefs:

  • the idea that Christian beliefs should be applied to social issues, and
  • nonviolent protest as the method for change

He chose to accept these ideas on a graduate student, and they are the reason his life is known and celebrated today.

The lesson for me: beliefs come before action or success, and choosing well is essential.

 Meaning of Community

Much of the civil rights movement was about segregation.  It’s worth reflecting today on what community means and why it is important.

One would hope that being together makes us all better–that those with higher status set a good example, and that we all learn from each other through daily example.  This is the argument that Booker T. Washington gives against segregation.

“White people who argue for the segregation of the masses of black people forget the tremendous power of objective teaching. To hedge any set of people off in a corner and sally among them now and then with a lecture or a sermon is merely to add misery to degradation. But put the black man where day by day he sees how the white man keeps his lawns, his windows; how he treats his wife and children, and you will do more real helpful teaching than a whole library of lectures and sermons. Moreover, this will help the white man. If he knows that his life is to be taken as a model, that his house, dress, manners, are all to be patterns for someone less fortunate, he will deport himself better than he would otherwise. ”

–Booker T. Washington, 1919

It’s difficult to find communities that prompt our growth, and uncomfortable to stay a part of them.  Often, we avoid these situations.  It’s easy to forgo the task of making friends that teach and challenge us.

And, even in a community, we often forget the value of our daily example.  Something I’m reflecting on today.

Words have power

One of the articles I read today was Dwight Eisenhower’s speech explaining his decision to assist the Arkansas National Guard in desegregating Central High School in Arkansas.  Eisenhower sent a brigade from the 101st to Little Rock to help the 10,000 National Guard soldiers keep order.

President Eisenhower emphasizes repeatedly in his speech the ideals central to this country–the rule of law, the principles of America’s founding, the goodness of the nation’s people.

At the time, I’m sure Eisenhower’s words were ignored by many.  And I’m sure that he’d shared these same themes–rule of law, founding principles–many times before.

So, I’m reflecting on that idea this week.  Part of leadership is being willing to say important things as many times as are needed, even when it doesn’t seem like they’re being heard.

But, sometimes, those words endure far beyond the initial audience.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your reflection and service on this holiday.  Take care!


For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and every other American holiday, the links  on What So Proudly We give a fantastic overview.

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