Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In honor of the holiday and his birthday (Jan. 15, 1929), I’d like to share five things he said that have been incredibly impactful to me and helped carry me through tough times.
I acknowledge that the words King said over half a century ago were aimed at a cause far greater than the struggles of a middle-aged white dude in the early 21st century, who’s had a relatively easy go of things. But I also believe his words held and continue to hold universal truths, and when I think of them, I do my best to put them into action not only for myself, but for others who are caught up with me in what King called “an inescapable network of mutuality.”
1. “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”
– Nov. 4, 1956, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama
In this imaginary letter written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in the United States, King sermonizes about American morality and spirituality, wondering if it has kept pace with the scientific progress the country has made. Through the construct of Paul’s voice, he also warns against the misuse of capitalism and the segregation of whites and blacks with American Christianity. King ultimately reminds his audience to be wary of becoming that which they fight against in the pursuit of justice. Hate leads to hate.
What stays with me the most from this particular quote is King’s suggestion that hatred is a mutual effort. Hatred is not an automatic reaction. It springs from myriad sources. Each person has the option of damming up those sources and choosing love.
2. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”
– April 19, 1959, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama
King’s “Three Dimensions” sermon breaks down the building blocks of a fully-lived life into three elements: concern for self, concern for humanity, and concern for the spiritual. Each of these pieces contains themes King returns to time and again, but to me, he was always most powerful when speaking about how one individual is connected to all individuals. It recalls the Ubuntu philosophy of southern Africa. “Ubuntu” is commonly translated as “I am because we are.”
3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– April 16, 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” or “The Negro is Your Brother,” Birmingham Jail, Birmingham, Alabama
Almost four years to the day from when King delivered “Three Dimensions” at Dexter Avenue, he and Revs. Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth led thousands of marchers through Birmingham to nonviolently push for desegregation. King, Abernathy, and many others were arrested, and King was placed in solitary confinement. There, he wrote his famous letter, a response to white religious leaders who suggested King and his followers were going about their work the wrong way.
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I see white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities,” King wrote of their efforts, or more accurately, the lack thereof.
The raw truth of King’s words holds as true today as it did over 50 years ago. The smallest crack in the concrete weakens the integrity of the whole structure. The tiniest weakness does not exist in a vacuum.
4. “I have decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems … And I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.”
– Aug. 16, 1967, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report to the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia
In the middle of a summer that saw riots in cities around the United States, King used this speech to call out capitalism’s systemic flaws and, pointing out how racism, war, and economic inequalities are connected, a need for the rebuilding of societal structures.
As for the quote selected here, King also points out that it’s necessary to restructure our collective mentalities, rather than just our institutions. At the root of racism, war, and financial inequality is the same seed: hate.
5. “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
– Dec. 24, 1967, “Christmas Sermon on Peace,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia
Powerful, passionate, and prophetic. The “Christmas Sermon” is maybe my favorite of King’s sermons. The quote here is more than beautiful. It’s Zen-like. Beautiful. True. The “inescapable network of mutuality” King speaks of here is the same he wrote of in “Letter from Birmingham Jail. At another point in his sermon, he puts another word into the mix: interdependent.
Science, spirituality, and politics have continued to show over the ensuing 51 years how true King’s words were and still are. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are connected to one another in truly profound ways.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I hope that wherever you are, the burden of hate is light upon you, and you are doing good for yourself and others.