On Thursday, the man who currently lives in the White House asked a subsequently well-publicized question about why people from certain poor, non-white countries should be allowed to come to the United States.
The very next day, he said the following as he signed a proclamation marking Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, “Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter the color of our skin, or the place of our birth we are all created equal by God.”
My first reaction was, “That’s our Hypocrite in Chief.”
My second reaction was, “That’s the difference between words that have a direct path from his brain to his mouth and ones that someone else wrote for him to read.”
My third reaction was to wonder how Dr. King would expect us to react. I can guarantee it wouldn’t have been to make excuses for Trump or to accept the horrible things being said about people from other countries.
I was just over a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in April 1968, so I have no memories of him. Everything I know is based on what I’ve read or seen on television. I don’t remember ever studying him as part of my public school education, and I was in college by the time a federal holiday was established in his honor.
Maybe the fact that I didn’t get a school-book version of his life is a good thing. I never thought of him as just the guy who gave a bunch of great speeches or even as just a civil rights activist. To me, he was someone who always put people first. And in doing that, he called all of us to think about and respond to the problem of privilege: who has it, who doesn’t, and the role we each play in making or changing that reality.
Being privileged isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Generally, most privileged people aren’t responsible for their own circumstances – they have it because of birth, or marriage, or appearance, or the assistance of someone else. It becomes a problem when privileged people believe that being privileged means they are better and more deserving than others.
Which is exactly the problem with Donald Trump. He thinks money and status and appearance are more important than anything, and he thinks if other people don’t have these things – and lots of these things – aren’t as important or valuable as those who do.
In other words, his belief system is the one Martin Luther King Jr. spent most of his life fighting.
Which brings me back to my question about how Dr. King would expect us to react to Trump. And while I can only speculate, I imagine he would ask the following of us:
- Speak out often and loud against any words that belittle another person or group of people: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends” and “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- Take action. Write letters. Make phone calls. Talk to your friends. Write a blog. Whatever you do, don’t ignore what is happening in our country right now. “The time is always right to do what is right.”
- Help someone who isn’t as privileged as you – however you define privilege. Learn about our immigration system and the conditions in some of the countries Trump denounced. Find out how adverse childhood experiences can impact a person’s entire life. Find out the facts about programs that help the poor. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”
- Don’t waste time worrying about or fighting with people who will always see the world from only one perspective – theirs. “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
- Never, ever give up or lose faith in humanity but don’t expect circumstances will improve without you. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” and “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday is always observed on the third Monday of January. This year, it falls on Dr. King’s actual birthday.
Please, please, please find a way to honor his words and his actions on what would have been his 89th birthday.
It’s not only the least we can do – it is what we absolutely have to do.
Earlier this week, a colleague stomped into my office expressing indignation about an injustice.
That unto itself wasn’t the least bit unusual. Someone is always stomping into my office to complain about something.
I work for a social service agency with a mission to alleviate poverty. My co-workers and I comprise a group of passionate people who won’t accept that the odds are simply stacked against some people. We try to change those odds.
Often, we feel as though we are tilting at windmills, and we even get discouraged.
But we don’t give up. After all, our heroes didn’t give up.
And the treatment of one of those heroes is the reason my co-worker was upset as she stormed into my office.
“I can’t believe that the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has become just another day for sales for some people,” she said. “The day is supposed to be about honoring of one of the greatest men in history. He changed the world.”
Indeed he did.
I was a just over a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, so I never knew a world that hadn’t been impacted by his actions, his words and his ability to change the system. But for years, what I knew about him was limited:
- He was a Civil Rights leader.
- He made a speech about having a dream that all people would someday be treated as equal.
- He believed in using peaceful tactics instead of violence.
- He was shot and killed at a hotel in Tennessee by a guy named James Earl Ray.
Those facts paint a picture of a great man who made a difference in the world. But those facts never really inspired me because I couldn’t relate to the charismatic leader. His ability to make such a huge difference in the lives of others had absolutely nothing to do with my potential.
At least, it wasn’t until I learned that he, like the rest of us, struggled with imperfections.
He apparently tried to commit suicide when he was 12 years old. His grandmother passed away after a heart attack while King was off disobeying his parents by going to watch a parade after they had prohibited it. When he got home and learned that his grandmother had died in his absence, he jumped out a second story window.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who delivered one of the most iconic speeches ever, received a C in a public speaking class during his first year in seminary.
King is rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs, which even resulted in his becoming a target of the FBI.
On the day he was killed, King was out on that now famous hotel balcony because he was smoking. He tried to keep the fact that he was a smoker hidden, so he didn’t want cameras around when he had a cigarette in his hand. According to Rev. Kyles, after King was shot but before he was taken away by the ambulance, Kyles removed the package of cigarettes from King’s pocket and got rid of the cigarette butt. This was an attempt to hide the fact that King was smoking at the time he was shot.
None of these facts minimize the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, in my eyes, they make them even more impressive. Like all of us, Dr. King struggled with being imperfect. But despite that, he changed the world.
He is my hero not just because he acted on the same beliefs that I hold dear. He is my hero because he didn’t let his imperfections get in the way of taking action and changing the world.
This Monday, when the United States celebrates the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what I’ll be thinking about.
I’ll be remembering that every person who makes a difference in the lives of others has a personal story lying just beneath the surface. These are the stories that involve failing from time to time but persevering anyway. They involve making mistakes or saying the wrong thing while we still attempt to do the right thing. And even though many of us feel like we are trying to lead when no one is following, we have to keep trying to blaze trails anyway.
These stories sometimes aren’t visible to those around us because we try to hide them just beneath the surface. But these are the stories that make us strong enough to take on the world and try to make it a better place.
Just like our heroes did.
Because of that, I will always remember those times she actually used words to teach my brother and me a lesson.
We were having a discussion about religion, and Mom was trying to explain why a strong proclamation of faith is not enough. She shared a story about a group of villagers who raised sheep. They herded the sheep from field to field to graze on the grass. But, over time, the grass stopped growing and the fields grew brown. The villagers could see that on the other side of the river was land with more green fields than they could imagine, and they complained that they had no way of reaching those pastures.
One day, a stranger came to town and told the villagers he could teach them how to access the green pastures. When they excitedly asked for his help, he agreed to stay and teach them to build a bridge. They were eager for his assistance, and he was more than happy to help ensure a brighter future for them.
Years passed, and the celebrations continued. But the villagers spent so much time and energy honoring the stranger that they generally failed to use the bridge.
That was the end of my mother’s story, but even as a child I understood it. Some people spend their time and energy worshiping the idea of Jesus, but they don’t follow his teachings.
I’ve been thinking about my mother’s story in a somewhat different context recently.
The United States now celebrates a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who not only made a life of advocating for minorities and the poor but who encouraged others to do the same.
Some people celebrate the holiday by sleeping in. Others don’t get the day off work and complain about those who do.
There are people who recognize a day of service and those who remember the eloquent words of Martin Luther King Jr.
But none of that matters if we aren’t following his advice or in his footsteps.
The story my mother told so many years ago still applies.
Our country is doing a great job of celebrating MLK’s life and remembering his words.
I only hope that we don’t forget to also follow his teachings.