King's Legacy in the Trump Era


"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." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


Every year I share a post honoring Martin Luther King Jr's enormous impact on the trajectory of mankind. His life is a chapter unto itself in the American story. Martin Luther King is a figure so crucial to American history that he could rightfully be thought of as a Founding Father. I also try to share an element of King's legacy that I think is both inspiring and timely.

This year the timeliness of King's message is obvious and deeply needed. King spoke to us on many different levels. First, King was non-violent, but he did not avoid confrontation. King affirmed our moral responsibility to speak truth to power with both his words and his actions. And with Trump in the White House the health and maintenance of our democracy depends upon our willingness to accept that responsibility. "In the End," King says, "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Martin Luther King did not hide behind a pacifist or religious veneer. To the contrary, he wrote in A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends."

Now is not the time to be silent. It is not the time to smile and look the other way. Now is the time “for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” Yes it is easy to keep quiet, to avoid the uncomfortable conversation, but King encourages us to create intellectual and moral tension, to have the argument and keep injustices before the eye of the nation, never letting them slip into the recesses of moral apathy and intellectual laziness.
King's contribution to civil rights and non-violent resistance monopolizes his legacy. His contribution in that arena is monumental. But King's legacy as a spiritual teacher should not be overlooked.
After hundreds of years of slavery, social, and economic injustice, resentment and animosity were surely brewing in the minds and hearts of many African-Americans. And successfully guiding hundreds of thousands of men and women through a non-violent movement that transformed their resentment and animosity into love and creativity requires a tremendous amount of wisdom and patience. King knew that resentment and animosity were poisons that would not only compromise the movement, but if left untreated would corrupt the individual's spirit. So King "decided to undertake a process of self purification," he writes in his auto-biography. "We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?"

Martin Luther King knew that you do not address injustices, particularly those that arouse bitterness within yourself, until you have first removed the plank from your eye. All too often religious and spiritual leaders, like those he addresses in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, use verses like Matthew 7:5 as an excuse to avoid the difficult conversation, and the uncomfortable work of self-examination. Matthew 7:5 says, "First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." It says "first." King saw Matthew 7:5, not as call to keep quiet, but as invitation to "undertake a process of self purification."

In his farewell address President Barack Obama reminded us of the importance the office of citizen holds in our democracy. And with the inauguration of Donald Trump on the horizon, King's uncompromising moral character, his commitment to truth, love, and nonviolence, and his ever-hopeful vision of the future is a timely and desperately needed reminder of the potential that office holds. I pray that we all aspire to embody the office of citizen in the way that Dr. King did.

I Have a Dream Speech




Bonus Video: Speech Dr. King gave in my hometown, Shreveport, LA



If you have not read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, please do. It is a piece of American literature with which every American should be familiar. Click here to read it or listen to King read the letter.

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