Commentary

The lessons of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life should give us hope today

January 15, 2024 6:00 am

President Lyndon Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. The act, part of Johnson’s “Great Society” program, trebled the number of Black voters in the South who had previously been hindered by racially inspired laws. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As we remember and reflect on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there are valuable lessons that should give us hope that we can overcome what we face today in a divided and teetering America.

If we, like King, truly believe that the words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are meant for all Americans, then zealously embrace them and put them into practice by letting them govern and guide our actions in both our public and private lives. 

That fundamental belief inspired and motivated King and lit the path he chose to fix policies and practices to make life in America as it was intended to be.

This was made abundantly clear in his “I Have a Dream” speech during the historic march on Washington in the summer of 1963: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

King did not ignore, nor seek to discredit or dismantle, the basic tenets of our democratic republic. He embraced them instead.

When you hear the words and see the actions today of some of our elected officials at every level of government, do you sense that they, like King, are using our fundamental governing documents as guides?

If we, like King, seek to bring about change through dialogue — and when dialogue fails use sustained peaceful protest — then we have chosen a proven and effective strategy.

What would King have thought about what happened in our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which was in stark contrast with what happened during the march on Washington in 1963?

Even though another momentous document — the Emancipation Proclamation signed 100 years before King led the Civil Rights movement — had failed to deliver on its promises, King still believed in its purpose and its power.

More importantly, he firmly believed that resorting to violence and hatred was not the way to get the country to honor its promises when it came to racial equality.

In that same speech, King said: “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

Would he be discouraged by growing advocacy and tolerance of acts of racial hatred and violence — committed by young and older Americans alike?

If we, like King, still have faith in America’s promises, despite her imperfections and failures, and faith in the decency and goodwill of the majority of our fellow Americans, we will continue to rise and protect this nation and work to make our way of life better.

No matter how long it takes. No matter how strong the opposition is.

King began his fight to gain equal rights for Blacks, poor whites and other disenfranchised groups years before the March on Washington. He continued the fight until his assassination in 1968 at the young age of 39.

We will never know how long he would have stayed the course, working for equal justice, equal opportunity, equality in housing, employment and education to become standard practice, ingrained in the fabric of American life.

But he let us know how deeply his beliefs and faith ran: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

If he were alive, what would he think about the status today of all people of color, all disenfranchised groups?

Would he be perplexed by how leaders in both political parties have continually failed for decades to pass meaningful policies on how to manage the immigration crisis?

He would have reasons to wonder whether the inscription at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty —”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”— has lost its meaning. 

On a broader scale, what would he think about some of our elected officials’ lack of belief in principles, laws and institutions that have made America? Would he be dismayed by the bold dismissal of democratic values and norms — even the blatant denial and distortion of defining periods in the nation’s history?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work stood for more than the fight for civil rights. King fought for the fulfillment and realization of America’s principles, values and promises.

What are we willing to stand for during these challenging times we are facing?

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Janice Ellis
Janice Ellis

Janice Ellis has lived and worked in Missouri for more than three decades, analyzing educational, political, social and economic issues across race, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. Her commentary has appeared in The Kansas City Star, community newspapers, on radio and now online. She is the author of two award-winning books: From Liberty to Magnolia: In Search of the American Dream (2018) and Shaping Public Opinion: How Real Advocacy Journalism™ Should be Practiced (2021). Ellis holds a Ph.D. in communication arts, and two Master of Arts degrees, one in communications arts and a second in political science, all from the University of Wisconsin.

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