What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
I’d be willing to bet a nickel that you were thinking something like “I Have A Dream,” or “speech at the Washington Monument.” If so, you are not alone. According to Brittanica on-line, “Martin Luther King, Jr., is known for his contributions to the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. His most famous work is his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963, in which he spoke of his dream of a United States that is void of segregation and racism.”
Now don’t get me wrong, that speech is one of the greatest orations in American history. (I recently learned that the “I Have A Dream” section was not part of his prepared script and was actually delivered extemporaneously, making it all the more impressive.) But it isn’t the reason Dr. King is important or even famous. He was already famous by the time of the 1963 March on Washington, which he helped organize. That speech perhaps solidified his reputation as a speaker. But he was already known as, and made his greatest impact as, a doer. I believe Dr. King is wrongly remembered primarily as a man of great words. More importantly, he was a man of action.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was an organizer, leading people not just in speaking out against injustice but doing something about it. He led the 1953 Montgomery bus boycott that eventually forced that city’s transit system to desegregate. He participated in sit-ins at lunch counters in Atlanta and Birmingham, for which he was arrested. He led the march at Selma to demand voting rights. And at the time of his assassination, he was in Memphis to march with striking sanitation workers.
Dr. King’s focus on deeds over words was influenced by his mentor at Morehouse College, Benjamin Mays. Black people couldn’t end oppression by talking about it and waiting for someone else to make it happen; they needed to actively confront it and oppose it themselves. Dr. King’s brilliance came in how he defined that confrontation. Motivated by Gandhi’s successes in India, Dr. King recognized that physical power and brute strength were the tools of oppression, and produced transient results. Moral strength and economic power, applied in non-violent resistance, were the best way to counter racism. But non-violence is not the same as passivity. He rejected both violence and inaction.
I have re-read “I Have a Dream” many times. The hope expressed there is a beautiful inspiration and aspiration. But Dr. King was not a dreamer, and he knew that hope is not a plan. As we honor his legacy today, let’s remember that he called on us to dream, but more importantly to act. If we want to see change, we must do more than talk about it, we must do the right things. And as Dr. King famously said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”