Schools across the country celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day today. At every level, students learn about King, the movement he helped lead and the teachings and legacy he left behind.
There are dramatic readings of his words. Many schools show his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a speech given before hundreds of thousands. Even in Key West, Florida, students at the local Montessori school hang handmade posters with quotes from King written in crayon. “Everyone can be great,” reads one. “Civil rights should be equal,” reads another. “We should remember that everything Hitler did was legal,” reads a third.
I had the privilege of being with Dr. King on his last birthday. He had breakfast at home with his family. Then he came to work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters. He was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which he hoped would be the climax of the third chapter of the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle for economic justice.
He met with organizers from across races and regions — from members of the Latino community, to Native Americans, women and men, young and old. His mission was to build a national movement of poor people who would march on Washington, calling on the nation to revive the War on Poverty, a war that was being lost in the jungles of Vietnam, as billions were squandered in that misbegotten war that might have been used to make America better.
Later that day, King’s staff surprised him with a cake and a celebration, bringing a smile to his face. But King was tireless in his mission. He seemed to sense that he had little time and there was so much yet to be done.
Dr. King’s commitment provides a wonderful example for all of us, but particularly for the young. He did not order an army; he inspired people to act and to volunteer. He amassed no fortune. He did not hold high office. Yet, by the wisdom of his teaching, the justice of his cause, the intensity of his commitment, he helped transform America, leading it out of the shame of segregation and toward a more perfect union.
Dr. King believed that everyone could be great because everyone could serve. He was utterly committed to challenging injustice and to nonviolence as the only sane way to bring change. He believed that everyone had a decency within them, that by challenging injustice and at the same time, appealing to the humanity of the oppressors, change was possible. And the civil rights movement that he helped lead proved that to be true.
Today, Dr. King’s example is more important than ever. Inequality has reached new extremes. We have a president that purposefully rouses racial and ethnic fears and divisions. Politics has become bitter, partisan, and increasingly marked by extreme and often hateful rhetoric. We are spending more and more on the Pentagon — already the largest military budget by far in the world — and cutting back on programs for the vulnerable, everything from food stamps, to Medicaid, to public housing and aid for poor schools and students. We end up with guided missiles and misguided young people — a tragic waste.
Today, a new Poor People’s Campaign is building, organizing lines of race, region, and religion.
It has been marching on state legislatures and now is increasing pressure on Washington. It is not about right or left, but about right and wrong. Dr. King called on us to express the better angels of our souls. Now, as we celebrate his life, we would do well to put his lessons into practice.