4 Key Lessons from Martin Luther King
Words can be incredibly powerful. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew exactly how to wield them to create change, deliver insight and wisdom, and fight for equality. Through empathy, education, and understanding, he knew how to motivate Americans to fight for what they believed in. Known for his role in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King encouraged Americans to use nonviolent methods to change an American society split by racial segregation.
To honor his life, the U.S. government made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday in 1983. Later, the Martin Luther King Day of Service was established in 1994, and Congress charged the Corporation for National and Community Service with leading this effort. Each year, MLK Day falls on the third Monday in January, and the Day of Service is observed as a “day on, not a day off.” Its intention is to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community.”
As equality and social justice are now more important now than ever before, let’s take a moment to consider the unique contributions Dr. King made to the civil rights movement. Let’s also consider how we can use those insights and challenges as we move forward in our actions and our leadership.
- We must not be silent
MLK’s impassioned words prompted us to think about living in a world where we see others as human, irrelevant of their race. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he said. Yet despite the great changes we have made in social justice, we are still living in a world that favors whiteness. We must continue to challenge the racial inequalities that exist in our society. We cannot afford to be silent.
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”
- Always help others
MLK said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
He believed in doing the right thing and helping those in need. But MLK also believed that to truly care, we needed to better understand how the person got to their state of need, and how we can change the societal conditions that led them there.
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
- Understand the goal of education
In his essay “The Purpose of Education,” Dr. King wrote of the importance of education in our communities.
“Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda,” he wrote.
The function of education, he says, “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
He went on to write, “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”
- Pursue your dreams
Despite setbacks, MLK never admitted defeat. He was arrested more than 20 times, his house was bombed, and he faced harassment and violence from those who didn’t agree with his views. Yet he persisted. MLK was clear on his dreams. He spent nine days in jail plotting his next steps. We can all learn to use rejections or setbacks to strive for what we believe in.
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