Martin Luther King Day

Day of Service for Martin Luther King Day

By Sam Johnson

     The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 91 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.

     One 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 today.
     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.
     This “I 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.

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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 today.
     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 assassinated.
     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 others?”
     During President Obama's administration, "Martin Luther King Jr. Day" was connected to the national call to service program, “United We Serve,” which asked all Americans to come together on the King Holiday to serve their neighbors and communities.
     This is still 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”).