The commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy this month, and the observance of Black History Month in February is an opportunity to get a glimpse into a rare form of inspirational leadership draped in compassion and humanitarianism.
Oftentimes during this national holiday, conversations about his contributions are centered on his “I Have A Dream” speech. Inasmuch as the speech was remarkable, conscience-searing and life-transforming, there was much suffering, sacrifice and surrendering that Dr. King made on behalf of a movement from which we all have benefited. It was his ultimate sacrifice that brings us together every year to reflect, remember and remind ourselves of our indebtedness to the Dreamer.
For years, Dr. King traveled the world delivering messages of nonviolence, protesting against injustice and advocating for civil rights laws. In so doing, he was often away from his wife, Coretta, and their four children. Dr. King and the King family made significant, countless and untold sacrifices for generations unborn.
It was primarily because of Dr. King’s selfless and courageous leadership that the civil rights movement was imagined, advanced and sustained. He was an original influencer who, without social media or the internet, was able to motivate and mobilize hundreds of thousands of Black and white people to attend the March on Washington in August 1963.
He was an original influencer who, without social media or the internet, was able to motivate and mobilize hundreds of thousands of Black and white people to attend the March on Washington in August 1963.
The March on Washington and Dr. King’s incessant drumbeat of justice and desegregation influenced the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Dr. King referred to this law as nothing less than a “second emancipation.” From this law, many rights and protections were extended to various groups in America, including women, veterans, the disabled and LGBTQ.
It was his intellectual capacity, effectual tenacity and spiritual audacity that intrigued and inspired the masses. Yet he bore the burden of death threats, ominous calls to his homes at all hours of the night, being abandoned by some fellow clergy members while incarcerated in Birmingham, police profiling, the bombing of his home, being stabbed by a mentally ill Black woman and living under a cloud of crippling and constant fear.
In his sermon “Antidotes for Fear” he spoke about being depressed and fear-stricken while speaking about strength before a crowd in Alabama. He and his family endured a life of danger without laws or law enforcement to protect them. It is because of the unparalleled forfeiture of safety for the greater good of the country that we are indebted to the Dreamer.
When revisionist leaders decide to whitewash Black history, academic institutions deny tenure to professors who write about slavery and critical race theory is used as a political lightning rod, these actions are antithetical to Dr. King’s dream. The denial or attempted erasure of Black history cannot extract, extricate or expunge the indelible sacrifices, contributions and legislation made by Black people. Thus, we are indebted to Dr. King to be guardians of our history.
When protests erode into the destruction of property, violence against humanity becomes random and crime within Black communities surges, this is contrary to the principles for which Dr. King advocated. The increased violence within the Black community dishonors the legacy of Dr. King, who went to jail more than 20 times for our freedom, rights and protection. Thus, we are indebted to Dr. King to be gatekeepers of our communities and adopt nonviolent practices to resolve conflict and hold one another accountable.
When politicians go shamelessly rogue to suppress the right to vote, gentrify communities and promote false propaganda, this defies the tenets of Dr. King’s relentless endeavors of equality and access. Thus, we are indebted to Dr. King to resist, rally and work to repeal agendas that are not fair for all.
Dr. King was a minister, scholar, moral philosopher, follower of Mahatma Gandhi, civil rights leader, legislative advocate, hypnotic orator and brilliant thought leader, strategist and visionary. With his many accomplishments, his masterstroke may have been combining his vulnerability, humanity and faith to effectively serve mankind. For these offerings and many more, his unfinished work is now ours. Continuing his redemptive work is how we pay our debt to the Dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.