April 4 marks the final day for the Season for Nonviolence, which we have honored every Sunday for the past few months with special readings from members of our congregation. It is also the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During his lifetime, Dr. King was often vilified for what he stood for. Others sympathized with his cause, but questioned his methods. Admittedly, I had little appreciation of the power of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence and his spiritual perspective on life until I began to study it more closely over the years after his death.
In light of the divisive atmosphere we face in our country today, it behooves us to look at some of the lessons we can glean from the life of this spiritual leader and civil rights icon. They are instructions that will not only help us to realize our oneness, but also to live out our potential as spiritual beings. As Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince noted, “A prudent man will always try to follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been truly outstanding, so that, if he is not quite as skillful as they, at least some of their ability may rub off on him.”
Here are three lessons from Dr. King that are worth following:
1. When we ask, “Why not?” we open ourselves to what’s possible.
When we look at some of the footage of Dr. King’s speeches, it’s easy to be enthralled by him and forget that no person is born with all the answers. He used his life experiences and interactions with others to broaden his perspective and help mold his worldview.
At the age of 15, the summer before he entered college, Dr. King left the South for the first time and worked on a tobacco farm up north. This opened up a whole new experience to him. While there, he wrote to his parents that he did not know “a person of my race could eat anywhere.” This exposure altered his perspective. The experience stuck with him all through his schooling and influenced his decision to enter the movement for civil and human rights.
How does this apply to us today? The answers to our problems of divisiveness are often only available after we learn from others—other people, other cultures, other places—what the right question is. Dr. King exemplified the benefit of always pushing past what is to what can be.
2. Change is inevitable. What’s important is how we react to it.
Even though Dr. King was a primary catalyst for change, change wasn’t always easy for him. During his leadership journey, he often had to work with a splintered coalition of organizations that created unanticipated shifts and changes.
In the famous March on Washington, Dr. King initially opposed the original, more confrontational idea of the march. Nevertheless, he decided to participate. He moved past his fears that the march would hamper the passage of the civil rights laws he sought to have implemented. He ended up crafting one of the most electrifying and transformative messages of the movement. He opened up minds that would have otherwise stayed closed.
3. When faced with setbacks, keep moving.
It wasn’t easy for Dr. King to advance his cause. His home was bombed. He was arrested close to 20 times. He was constantly harassed and bombarded with violence. Despite this, Dr. King used every obstacle as an opportunity to reflect and then continued to take action.
After a racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, he turned his attention to that city. He led demonstrations that resulted in brutal resistance by the police against the nonviolent protestors. Dr. King knew he was going to be arrested. Those who orchestrated the arrest did so with the intent of breaking up the movement and demoralizing the supporters. Dr. King accepted his arrest and, while enduring what turned out to be a particularly horrible time in solitary confinement, wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Even though the arrest was unjust, Dr. King neither wallowed in self-pity nor was he dissuaded from advancing his mission. His 20-page letter became a populist battle cry for the rights of others. In that letter, he penned that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King parlayed his personal setback into greater motivation for an entire social cause—despite the constant tide of opposition.
Fifty years after his death, Dr. King’s contribution to our society has had a lasting impact. He left us lessons that can be used in any challenging situation—confronting difficult relationships between people and groups, confronting norms that no longer serve us and even overcoming personal tragedy. Dr. King’s footsteps are worth following in our own lives.
Peace and Blessings,