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Annually, we remember Martin Luther King Jr. by celebrating the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America.
We recall the timeless values he taught us through his example—values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility, service, universal and unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence. Those traits defined Dr. King’s character and empowered his leadership and revolutionary spirit.
As his wife Coretta Scott King once wrote: “We commemorate Dr. King’s inspiring words, because his voice and his vision filled a great void in our nation, and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lived by its noblest principles.
“Yet, Dr. King knew that it wasn’t enough just to talk the talk; he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. And so we commemorate on this holiday the man of action, who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day, the man who braved threats and jail and beatings and who ultimately paid the highest price to make democracy a reality for all Americans.
“The King Holiday honors the life and contributions of America’s greatest champion of racial justice and equality, the leader who not only dreamed of a color-blind society, but who also lead a movement that achieved historic reforms to help make it a reality.
“Americans across the nation have heard the resounding words, “I have a dream.” No matter their color or religion, nationality or creed, they have felt their hearts pound with the vitality of that vision, the hopes it brought to the surface, and the increased faith in its possibility. They were enlivened by the image of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation. This can be “a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child.
“No other day of the year brings so many peoples from different cultural backgrounds together in such a vibrant spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. Whether you are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, whether you are Caucasian or Asian-American, you are part of the great dream Martin Luther King Jr. had for America. This is not a black holiday; it is a peoples’ holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of his dream.” [Coretta Scott King]
Interestingly, though the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a citizen of the United States of America, commemorations of his birthday are observed in more than 100 nations where he inspired freedom movements.
He was a global leader as well as a national one. His vision had no horizons. It was a world-view that saw ecumenical solidarity and universal triumph over poverty, racism, war and violence.
He insisted that all faiths had something meaningful to contribute to building God’s kingdom. And he believed that this could and would be accomplished through nonviolent action. In fact, he believed that such action is the most powerful revolutionary force for social change.
The road he traveled was not an easy one. It was a path marked with harassment, threats and beatings, and even bombings. It brought him to jail 29 times to achieve freedom for others.
It made clear the fact that he would pay the ultimate price for his leadership. Yet, he kept on marching and protesting and organizing anyway. He repeatedly gave example of a positive way to fight evil. He exemplified the answer to a needed question, “What is the most loving way I can resolve this conflict?”
For Martin Luther King Jr., time has ended. Death took his last example and left us with memories alone. So, how do we—how will we—remember this man? I submit that we remember him by “re-membering” ourselves.
We recall all that he said and did by saying and doing those works in our way and time, now and in the future. We honor him by honoring each other, by showing the power of forgiveness locally and believing that it will be evoked globally.
We remember Dr. King by serving others. During her lifetime, his wife suggested that we volunteer to feed the hungry, rehabilitate housing, tutor those who can’t read, mentor at-risk youngsters, console the brokenhearted and participate in thousand other projects for building the beloved community of his dream.
Her words echo his. His resounded with the message of the Beatitudes, the compassion of Buddhism, the basic call of Islam, the heart of the Hebrew scriptures, the essence of all religions.
Dr. King once said that we all have to decide whether we “will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life’s most persistent and nagging question, he said, is “What are you doing for others?’”
We remember him by re-membering others, by putting them back together again in a wholeness that can only be described as holiness.
We remember Martin Luther King Jr. by heeding and acting upon the words of Mark 9:35, the scripture in which Jesus of Nazareth tells James and John, “...whosoever will be great among you shall be your servant; and whosoever among you will be the first shall be the servant of all.”
In one of his last sermons on Feb. 4, 1968, in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to the end of his mortal life and any remembrances of it.
He said, “I’d like somebody to mention on that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others,” he said. “I want you to say on that day, that I did try in my life...to love and serve humanity.”
Remembering a great man is only the beginning. Re-membering each other is the lifetime process that commemorates the good too often interred with our bones.
I join the late Coretta Scott King in her heartfelt invocation, “We call you to commemorate this Holiday by making your personal commitment to serve humanity with the vibrant spirit of unconditional love that was his greatest strength, and which empowered all of the great victories of his leadership. And with our hearts open to this spirit of unconditional love, we can indeed achieve the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.”
Fran Salone-Pelletier is lead Chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, and lecturer. Her trilogy, AWAKENING TO GOD: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [Cycles A, B], is available at local bookstores or by contacting the author.