Martin Luther King Jr. was above all a preacher. He used the power and art of word to stir up our collective passions and present a vision beyond our grasp but still worth striving to attain. His speeches live on.
We do a great disservice to the legacy however when we forget that King’s words were the fuse that ignited action. He was not content to talk. He acted, fervently, passionately and relentlessly to bring forth his vision of equality, justice and freedom. If there is one message I wish could be conveyed this time of year, every year, its to talk less and do more. Do something.
When I was in my twenties I considered a doctorate in history focused on the Civil Rights Era. I spent the better part of a year intensively studying this segment of history while trying to finish my master’s degree in both psychology and theology. I began to see how the lessons of this era remained relevant. I cared deeply about racism, justice and poverty issues that weren’t addressed often enough in terms of meaningful action. Coming at the end of the Reagan Administration such notions seemed antiquated and lost to another era. I wanted to bring them back into relevance… to action.
That I wanted to shift to history says a great deal about the dissatisfaction I felt in both psychology and theology to satisfy my deepest longing to make a significant difference. I wanted to do something to make a difference and didn’t think I was doing it. I was tired of things like white privilege, consumerism and elitism even though such terms were rarely, if ever, used. I was hungry for a different life and looked back in time to find it.
I traveled throughout the Deep South visiting well-known landmarks and museums like The King Center in Atlanta and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. But I also visited lesser known spots like the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I suffered a great disappointment when I learned a month before my trip that iconic civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy died. The great pastor had graciously agreed to meet with me prior to his illness. I had spent hours thinking about the questions I would ask the man who King called “the best friend I have in the world.”
Eventually I started meeting professors at various universities looking for a fit for my doctoral ambitions. I found my own zeal largely met with indifference. Eventually, I ended up back at home in Oregon and met with the only black doctoral professor of history. He listened too unimpressed. I felt stonewalled and finally spoke up. What was it? I asked him.
“Black folks are reaching a point when they are tired of hearing their history from white folks,” he said plainly. “I’m not sure this is the best time for you to enter this profession.”
He wasn’t wrong, and it turned out to be good advice. The field was changing. It would have been a poor fit. But it spoke volumes that 25 years after the civil rights movement gave way to Vietnam the racial divide remained despite all the talk of progress.
Fast-forward 25 more years. As we celebrate another Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ample evidence suggests our post-racial society is more myth than reality. The issues I cared about then remain, especially the radical politics of poverty. Twenty-five years of conversation about these issues have done nothing to dispel my basic desire to actually do something.
As poet Carl Wendell Hines wrote, “It is easier to build monuments than to make a better world.”
We remain full of words, many now honoring King while ignoring his call to action. We like monuments so long as we don’t have to really change the monuments of our lives we’ve built to ourselves. We talk often about how life should be, yet do little to consider what our unique role in that change requires of us. We fail to heed the main lesson of the great preacher whose life was meaningful not as much for the words he said but for the era of civil rights action that he inspired. If you do anything this holiday, make sure it’s something you actually do.