Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatness was rooted in his convictions. He had a vision of justice and a commitment to non-violence but no assurance that the strategy he chose would lead the country to the goal he embraced.
Still, he stood by his values, even in the face of periodic despair over the plodding pace of progress. And in the end, he brought about positive change, even though he didn’t live to see most of it.
Celebrated today for his leadership in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, he stands as a continuing inspiration for the work that remains to be done in the cause for which he was martyred.
Yet King and his legacy provide a model for much more than the human rights agenda to which he dedicated himself and for which he is remembered.
He exemplified both the opportunities and the obligations embodied in the American system of self-governance, no matter the issue at hand.
By empowering individuals to do on the streets and at the lunch counters – and sometimes in the face of intimidating, hostile opposition – what lawyers and politicians were struggling to do in the institutional halls of government, King and his followers exemplified the inherent power of democracy.
In his own words, “Mass marches transformed the common man into the star performer.”
The neighborhood activist who rolls up his sleeves to fight an objectionable zoning decision or school board policy would do well to remember King’s determination in the face of daunting odds.
And to remember also, that King may have been the catalyst, but the accomplishments recorded in his name were the work of thousands of individuals whom he rallied to action in the interest of justice.
He contended not only with his enemies, but also with his allies – with those who thought him too bold and those who thought him too cautious.
Those who urged him to trim his sails rather than provoke destructive reactions and those who chided him for shunning more militant tactics they believed would achieve dramatic results faster.
In a nation that’s just endured another rancorous election to choose the representatives who will make public policy in our name, it’s good to remember that the individual citizens own the ultimate responsibility, whether they accept it or not, to steer the country, the state and the community on a course that’s worthy of the fundamental ideals of America.
That’s what made Martin Luther King Jr. a formidable change agent – harnessing the belief and the energy of the people whose interests are at stake.
And although he couldn’t be sure he would prevail, it was enough to keep him going to know that he should.
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