The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was officially dedicated this past Sunday, October 16, 2011 at the National Mall in Washington, DC. In addition to the 30-foot memorial being erected near that of three U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln among them, the significance is far-reaching. As a caring ordinary citizen, King was motivated to fight for racial, social, economic, and educational equality.
King’s method of redress of any kind of injustice has defined how many groups have sought and fought for change. One has only to witness the current “Occupy Wall Street” protests, which have spread to cities across America and the globe.
The King Memorial will have fleeting meaning if most of us go back to business as usual and continue to choose to be only spectators of conditions and incidents of inequity, prejudice and blatant discrimination that occur on a daily basis in many aspects of contemporary society.
Erecting bigger-than-life statues and commemorations are one thing. Teaching and living the principles King died for is quite another.
While much progress has been made, there is still a great need to continue to work to achieve better race relations, religious tolerance, social justice, education, and economic parity and to rid our tendency to conduct our daily lives based on erroneous stereotypes.
We can no longer wait to be motivated to act by blatant and ugly reminders — a hanging noose here, an ethnic slur there or some other derogatory graffiti and demeaning behavior. Worse yet until some one is beaten or killed because of how they look, because of their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs.
We also need to be mindful of the less obvious crimes against people that are with us every day through some form or the other — disenfranchisement born of the disparity between race, economic classes, the well educated, and the poorly educated. Someone is denied a job, a home, a loan, a seat in a classroom just because of their color or class.
Like King, there must be many more voices sending an unequivocal and unswerving message: One’s color, one’s ancestry, one’s economic status in life by birth does not automatically make a person either superior or inferior to any other person who may be different.
Imagine if we were able to avoid passing these harmful stereotypes and beliefs of racial hatred to our children. Many destructive and divisive cycles would be broken. In imparting the right lessons and messages to our children, we could be sowing the seeds that could advance human relations by leaps and bounds. Silence is not an option.
Could the societal sea change that is needed, lie with future and younger generations?
Looking a little closer at King’s life could foretell the promise we can place in our youth. King’s concern about human injustice began early in his life.
Most people know of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered during the march on Washington in 1963. But the fire that burned within King’s soul, that led him to dedicate his life toward eradicating social evil and injustice, started long before — nearly 20 years earlier when he traveled to Dublin, Georgia as a senior in high school to deliver “The Negro and the Constitution” in an oratory contest. Perhaps, it was just a flicker then. But as you follow his life through college and the seminary, you see that flicker grow into a flame.
The more inhumanity he saw and heard, the more he could not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. Obviously, adults, whether his parents and others he encountered along the way, implanted and influenced the belief system that governed how he regarded mankind and his life’s work to make things better.
Time and time again, we see how difficult it is for many of us to shake the harmful and false perceptions of others that have been passed from one generation to the next. We must take off the blinders and face how these perceptions perpetuate negative influences generation after generation.
If King had to choose having a statue commemorating his work over us living, teaching and practicing every day the principles he fought and died for, he would much rather we do that.
Then our children can become the teachers of other children. Only then will the principles King lived and died for become our way of life.
What do you think about the work of Martin Luther King? How might it influence your future perceptions and actions?