This year, the commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lies awkwardly between the January 6th insurrectionists’ arrests and the presidential inauguration. With so much social upheaval and political unrest, America today, like during the civil rights movement, longs for leadership, stability and a semblance of peace.
The volatility of America then, like now, teetered on the actions of one person. We have learned this past year, in particular, the profound impact and indelible influence of one person.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the chief strategist who led the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus, African Americans had reached their “enough is enough” threshold. It was the collective and cohesive response by the African American community that created a racial justice inflection point, as this is when the civil rights movement was born. It is from the civil rights movement that many federal and state laws were enacted which allow us to experience and enjoy many freedoms and privileges today.
From advocating for fair treatment on buses in Montgomery, Alabama to standing with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee right before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personified the power of leadership, courage and resiliency.
Two of Dr. King’s most trusted friends, Harry Belafonte and Stanley Levison described him in a tribute by stating, “He was incontestably one of history’s preeminent black leaders. Yet he was, as well, a leader to millions of white people who learned from him that in degrading black men, they diminished themselves, that in supporting black liberation they enriched themselves.”
His life and legacy reveals to us that deference to other entities — especially the government — is not always as effective as the power of one.
America’s social and political climate today calls for an “it only takes one” response. It takes only one parent to challenge principals, superintendents and school boards to create a better learning experience for our children. Only one pastor is needed to step out of the pulpit and into the community to help the least of these. Only one candidate is needed to defeat the elected officials who do not demonstrate care for the disenfranchised, defenseless and the disinherited.
It only took one seamstress, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat and go to the back of bus and start a civil rights movement. It took only one call after Rosa was arrested to get Dr. King involved in the movement. It took only one community organizer from the south side of Chicago to run for the highest office in the world and win. It only takes one who commits to stand strong in the face of adversity. It only takes one.
It does not take a committee, a crowd or a coalition. It only takes one. Not one who has to be convinced, compelled or coerced, but one who believes that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. It only takes one.
Not one who seeks currency, cash or capital, but one who cares about the betterment of mankind. It only takes one. It only takes one who selflessly cares about humanity. It only takes one who believes as Dr. King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
One teacher, who will help us learn to live together. One facilitator, who will prevent us from perishing as fools. It only takes one.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a National Day of Service. It’s a day, even in the midst of economic collapse, high rates of unemployment and a pandemic, where each of us can serve. Dr. King said, “Everybody can be great, because anyone can serve.”
Anyone of us can make a difference. Anyone of us can start a conversation. Anyone of us can help someone else. Anyone of us can mentor youth, support small businesses and help seniors. Anyone of us can broker peace, influence change and inspire hope. It only takes one. Is that one you?
Theresa A. Dear is a strategist at The Human Capital Strategy Group and a national board member of the NAACP. Visit her website at theresaadear.com.