Every year, when the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King comes around, I brace myself to repeatedly hear clips from his address at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in August of 1963. Not that it wasn’t a brilliant speech, mind you. Indeed, it stands side by side with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor and with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, as among the finest in American history. My issue is that it seems to be the only statement of Dr. King one hears much about. Worse yet, we only hear about four lines of it. Dr. King was much more than a man with a dream. He was a great leader consumed by his passion for justice.
I’d like to think that if Dr. King were alive today he’d still be speaking out about contemporary issues of justice. Dr. King was assassinated as he defended worker’s rights; surely he would have been right there with those teachers in Madison last year. I am certain that he would have had a thing or two to contribute to the debate about the federal budget. I think he would have been front and center in the effort to pass the health care bill. I have no doubt that he would have commented on the sad predicament of public education and the menace of privatization. I believe he would have championed the Dream Act and would have severely dealt with Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I can’t imagine him not speaking forcefully about the reality of climate change and its impact on the poor people of the Earth who have contributed the least to it.
Above all, I have no doubt that he would expect us to meet the justice issues of our day head on; not merely to quote lines from a speech he made almost 50 years ago. His legacy of engagement leads us to challenge the oppressive structures of our day, even as he faced up to those of his. We would honor him by not only remembering the things he said, but by following the example he set before us to confront present injustices, as he defied the inequities of his own historical setting.
On the Martin Luther King holiday there were events in his honor all over the country. In the nation’s Capital there were the usual community service projects, the parades and speeches, the church services and lofty sermons, and the concert at the Kennedy Center. These are all good and help pass Dr. King’s legacy on to new generations that never knew him. Ultimately, however, we honor Dr. King best by building the type of society he envisioned: one where all people are valued and treated with respect, where all children are well cared for and receive a good education, where race and ethnicity do not determine opportunity, where his dream shapes reality.
That’s why I’m still writing about MLK two weeks after the holiday honoring him.
The United Church of Christ has more than 5,277 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.