Point of View

Honoring Dr. King with a service ethos

January 17, 2014 

As the nation prepares to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, citizens across the country are set to engage in countless acts of laudable service intended to commemorate Dr. King’s own selfless efforts. It is a distinctively admirable way of recognizing and honoring King’s actions and example, and yet I worry that we are missing something.

For all our reverence for the courage, leadership and accomplishments that characterized King’s life, I fear we are failing to look at King through the proper lens and, as a result, failing to honor his full legacy or do justice to his vision for his fellow citizens and the American democratic experiment.

No one, least of all a teacher, can deny the inestimable value of the service efforts that will take place across the nation in honor of King’s life and work. These ventures spring from the heart, their impact is real and the comfort they provide is often profound and deeply moving. And yet one cannot help but wonder whether such efforts are, in the end, little more than Band-Aids that, in an unconscious way, distract us from the larger societal and systemic issues on which King was, in fact, focusing at the time of his death.

Certainly King’s own efforts were far more than simply acts of service. On the contrary, in ways that often made people uncomfortable, King held up a mirror to the American people, forcing them – leaders and citizens alike – to reflect upon their history and ask hard questions about equality, opportunity, community and citizenship. He called upon his fellow Americans to consider the very nature of the nation and the principles upon which it was founded. The answers to many of those questions proved elusive and remain unanswered even today. And yet the need to wrestle with them, to work to discover and then implement the answers is central to the effort we must undertake if we are to become the nation King envisioned in his now famous dream.

In 2014, these questions are more important than ever, for as we head into another election cycle it is incumbent upon “we the people” to ask these same questions of those who seek to lead and represent us. Indeed, the opportunity to exercise that responsibility was the ultimate goal of King’s efforts in Selma, and while those opportunities have expanded significantly since his time, recent studies indicate that the gulf between rich and poor has seen an equally noteworthy, if dispiriting, increase. Consequently, it is all the more important to remember that no small part of King’s dream remains unfulfilled and that the fundamental issues central to the 1963 march – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – not to mention King’s final initiative, the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War not only reflected the developing direction of his efforts, but remain with us today.

The passing of years tends to sanitize our history and as Sen. Edward Kennedy warned us in his eulogy for his brother Robert, only months after King’s own death, our leaders should not be “idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what (they were) in life.” Such efforts do a disservice both to those we would honor as well as to ourselves, for if we do not recognize and appreciate the whole of their efforts then we minimize the best of them.

This is particularly true in the case of Martin Luther King Jr., for while his accomplishments could have filled a much longer life, in his being assassinated at only 39 years old, we are left to wonder what might have been. Yet there is a rich legacy in his efforts and in his vision, and he left us something from which we can learn and to which we can aspire.

Indeed, over 45 years after his death, for all the progress that has been made, King’s dream remains just that – a dream –and it is up to us to continue the full scale pursuit of justice and opportunity at the heart of his efforts. It is not easy and it is not a once-a-year celebratory thing. If we wish to truly honor King’s efforts, the development of both a service and citizen ethos is something all of us, especially our young people, should seek to achieve. It would be a further step on the road to making King’s dream a reality.

William H. Pruden III is director of Civic Engagement for Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.

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