One reason that we stop and think about the great causes on Martin Luther King Day is that no one has replaced him. It was his voice that was so strong, and his message could not be ignored. There is no other Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so we return to his words so often – especially on this day.
In his clear voice, he reminded us of the dangers, the wrongs, the challenges that faced us. He did so with great passion, and with great depth and substance.
It is almost impossible to single out a quote or two. There are so many. And, yes, he repeated key phrases, in different places. But for this Martin Luther King Day, let me point out two of his themes. One, his attention to the great injustice of poverty. The other, the reminder that there is great dignity in honest, physical work.
#1 – Regarding poverty. These excerpts come from his Nobel Lecture, delivered on December 11, 1964, after receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. (You can read the full Lecture here).
In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon. President Johnson, in his State of the Union Message1, emphasized this contradiction when he heralded the United States’ “highest standard of living in the world”, and deplored that it was accompanied by “dislocation; loss of jobs, and the specter of poverty in the midst of plenty.”
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne interpreted this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed:
No man is an Iland, intire of its selfe:
every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine:
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were,
as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were:
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde:
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:
it tolls for thee.
Notice again these lines:
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the top 1%, and then the rest of us. But those at the “bottom” literally suffer “the agony of the poor.” And, at the very least, there shoud be genuine compassion from all of us, regardless of where we fall in the “percentages,” for this agony – for these real people, who suffer genuine difficulty.
#2 – Regarding the dignity of genuine, hard work.
There are some who argue that our society is inviting laziness, “dependence” on programs of one kind or another. Personally, I think this is an incorrect and misplaced “reading” of the culture… But Dr. King would never have stood for “handouts” to replace hard work. Just last night, the Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a film went to Octavia Spencer who played a maid in the Civil Rights era movie “The Help.” Spencer quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in her acceptance:
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
(Read more about her acceptance speech here).
The line that best captures this was delivered by Dr. King in Jamaica in 1965:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Care about, and help the poor. Do whatever work you have to do very well, for there is great dignity and importance in all labor that uplifts humanity.
In his speech in Jamaica, Dr. King said:
“The time is always right to do right.”
Yes, it is. It is always the time to do right…
These are reminders for us all on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.