Day of Service for Martin Luther King DayBy Sam Johnson
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
would have been 88 years old on January 15th had he lived. He was
assassinated on April 14, 1968. He
was 39 years old.
The total of what could King could have
accomplished, no one will ever know. But what he DID accomplish, changed
American society forever, and left an indelible mark on the world.
of the most important things he left us was his dream; a message of hope and
optimism for a better world that many people continue to share and work toward
Martin Luther King, Jr. was an eloquent
speaker and a great leader who caused tremendous social change. His powerful “I
Have A Dream” speech electrified the March on Washington in the sweltering heat
of August 1963, and laid the groundwork for the passage of the landmark Civil
Rights Law of 1964, among other important social changes.
Have A Dream” speech is how most young people know Martin Luther King, Jr. Many
of the students I teach in my online classes, or work with at the college or in
the public schools, don’t really know much about the civil rights movement and
racial segregation, the principles of “Jim Crow,” “separate but equal,”
“interposition,” and “nullification,” and I often wonder what they think of Dr.
King and his speech when they hear it rebroadcast on TV, watch it on the
internet, or in their classroom? I wonder how it makes them feel, and what
impact it has on them?
Since they did not live through “the
turbulent sixties,” I’m not sure how much impact the speech has on them
today. But I do know the emotional
impact of the speech is not the same for them as it is for me.
Every time I hear the speech replayed,
hear Dr. King’s rich, baritone voice intone those famous words ... “I have a
DREAM today...” I think of our nation, our past, what we’ve been through as a
people, where we are today, and it moves me.
Sure, some of the emotion I feel is Rev.
King’s delivery, though more of it is due to the words he speaks. But most of
the emotion I feel, is the result of the IDEAS he presents and the possibility
of those ideas becoming reality.
I didn’t walk with Dr. King in Montgomery.
But I visited there in the early 60’s as a young boy, and the images of
heart-wrenching poverty, acts of cruel discrimination, and the frightening
feelings of the racial tension I witnessed and experienced then, still haunt me
I didn’t march with Dr. King in Washington
D.C. against racial segregation and prejudice that summer of 1963, but I’ve
witnessed the practice of bigotry and “color separation,” and have walked
through Washington D.C.’s riot-torn streets and “Resurrection City” as a young
teenager living in Washington D.C. in 1968, just a few months after King was
I vividly remember the turbulence and
racial tensions of the time, and even experienced some of it first-hand. My
students know of it only from books and films.
As we prepare to commemorate Martin Luther
King, Jr. Day on Monday, it seems to me we should do more than look back over
the many years since his death and summarily note the progress that has been made
in the advancement of civil and human rights.
We should also look ahead to the future,
for there is still much work to be done, much hatred and injustice to overcome.
We must believe as King did, “that peoples
everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture
for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
We must believe as he did that “what
self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great teacher
who taught us many things: that people can and do make a difference; that we
are responsible not only for ourselves, but also for each other; that changes
can take place if actively though not violently pursued; and that we can indeed
make our dreams come true and our world a better place.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once
said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for
"Martin Luther King Jr. Day" has been tied to President Obama’s national call to service program, “United We
Serve,” which asks all Americans to come together on the King Holiday to serve
their neighbors and communities.
This is a great opportunity for all of us
to continue the efforts to make Dr. King’s dream, OUR dream, and endeavor to make that dream come true.
(Sam Johnson was the 1996
recipient of the “North Dakota Martin Luther King, Jr. Educator Award”).