It is so easy to sentimentalize Dr. King. You search for the great quote and pass it along as a way to celebrate him and demonstrate your commitment to justice. I’ve done it before and will likely do it again. After all, his quotes inspire and deserve proclamation.
Today, though, I am reflecting on the context in which he spoke such beautiful and courageous truth as much as the words themselves. A trip to Montgomery with my family this summer to see the Equal Justice Initiative Museum and Memorial and to Dexter Ave King Memorial Baptist Church which Dr. King pastored provided a window into that context. Terrorism in the form of racial lynching and the Jim Crow systemic suppression of human rights were the norm. The vicious idea of white supremacy was held as truth by many.
All that Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights did occurred in this abhorrent context. The bravery it took on their parts is hard to fathom. They spoke, organized and protested non-violently in the face of severe violence, offering an alternative vision for society that today we hold up as an ideal but was seen as a major threat to the powerful forces of their day. Their moral clarity and courage cost many of them their lives including Dr. King’s. No quote will speak louder than his willingness to die for a better future for all of us.
Injustice and inequality persist today. They are perpetuated both actively and unwittingly. They exist within our systems and we must always be on guard against perpetuating them ourselves. As we celebrate Dr. King, let us ask to be able to see with his clear vision the truth of today, speak with his hope for tomorrow and act courageously for a world where all people are indeed equal in their freedom, dignity and opportunity.