Consider these words Dr. King spoke in 1964 as part of his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, Norway.
I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.
Dr. King gave this speech almost 50 years ago this year. Change a few descriptive words and he could have been speaking about the way we live now. Just think about recent events and daily headlines. Blood continues to flow on the streets of our nations, at our shopping malls, cinemas, workplaces, churches and in our schools. Our country is at war and we still struggle to feed our people and educate all children. The difference is that our everyday weapons of mass destruction have become faster, more efficient killing machines with sharper sounds. They give no warning.
Were he alive, I have no doubt Dr. King would be among the first to agree that although we have come a long way we have not reached the Promised Land of civil rights and non-violence of his dream. The quotation highlights his awareness of and empathy for the conditions of his time. It underscores his visionary understanding of the timeless link between civil rights and the human condition and speaks to the enduring relevance of his life’s work.That is why it is fitting that we are here today and that we continue to meet each year to commemorate Dr. King’s life, his legacy and his broad, inclusive dream that left out no one. While his ministry for civil rights focused on particular states, there is no doubting Dr. King’s meaning when he said:
Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. –Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 1963;
God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race. – March on Detroit, 1963. We may all have come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.–Come, May, Different
"... all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. What affects one affects all. –Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 1963.
Dr. King reached out with his universal language of love, justice and righteousness. Empathetic people of all races and the marginalized and disenfranchised of the world heard him and embraced his dream. Because of his message more than two hundred thousand people joined him around the Reflecting Pool in Washington DC August 7, 1963. Because of his message, even more wanted to join him.
Many of you in today’s audience were not there. Neither was I. You were too young or not yet born. I was not too young. I made a tremendous effort to be there and didn’t make it. That summer, on my first overseas trip away from home I was on a study-abroad program in Mexico City as an undergraduate from the London University College of the West Indies in Mona Jamaica. I decided to play hooky from school for the first time in my life in order to join Dr. King in the March on Washington. Unlike one of my classmates who also wanted to go, I was able to persuade the American Embassy in Mexico City to grant me a visa to travel to the United States. The next day a Panamanian student friend and I boarded a Greyhound bus headed north from Mexico City.After days of journeying through Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia Maryland, and perhaps a few other states, I arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where an older brother, then a student himself at Temple University met me. After hearing of my adventures, he shook his head and commented, “You are lucky to be alive. They realized you did not know what you were doing;” and he forbade me to go to DC. When you grow up in a large family with 10 brothers and sisters, older siblings have the authority of parents. You pay attention and do what they say. He made sure I got on a non-stop flight back to Jamaica.
Of course, that summer there was none of the predicted riots or violence in Washington DC. Two to three hundred thousand people joined Dr. King in a peaceful march and heard his unforgettable “I have a dream” speech.But destiny was on my side. Two years later, in 1965, I got the opportunity to meet Dr. King and hear him speak when he visited Jamaica and spoke at the University.
Two years later still, 1967, found me living in Washington DC, the wife of a diplomat, accredited to the White House. I still remember exactly where I was the following year, April 4, 1968 when we heard the worst about Dr. King.Had he lived, Dr. King would be 84 years old this year. Ironically, at age 39, only two months before his death, in a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist church, Dr. King said (and I quote) I know man who lived only 33 years; had a short ministry of only three years and was rejected by people including some he knew well. He suffered a horrendous death but almost two thousand years later continues to have unprecedented influence on people’s lives.
Two months later, Dr. King’s ministry ended. He was young but left a substantial legacy.· He left us the example of a life of unwavering commitment to making the world a better place; a life he, in his humility, described as that of a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
· He left us a legacy of unprecedented civil rights achievements that he, in his lifetime, could only dream of.
· He left us a legacy of his writings: books, speeches and sermons—a treasure trove of inspiring and motivational sayings and edifying lessons.
One of Dr. King’s lessons I particularly like is that of The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, taught in a sermon Dr. King preached at the Covenant Baptist Church in Chicago on April 9, 1967. (Time does not allow me to go into the details of the lesson. I will share a bit of what I like about it and hope you will be motivated to read it if you have not yet done so and to revisit it, if you already have. I think it is better than Stephen Covey, Wayne Dwyer, and Don Miguel Ruiz put together because it is based on love.
It is about achieving meaning and fulfillment by purposefully living the length, breadth and depth of life. To Dr. King, length of life relates to loving oneself and having a healthy, reflective inward concern for one’s own welfare. Faithfully pursued, the length dimension of life naturally expands into living the second dimension, breadth of life (love of neighbor) and ultimately into the height of life (love of God).Living a successful life starts with love -- unconditional love. It begins with loving ourselves first because it is only in the pursuit of a rational and healthy self-interest that we will find the personal fulfillment that allows us to move easily into loving our neighbors and our God.
Great teacher that he is, Dr. King doesn’t just tell us what we have to do and why, he also explains how.1. We need to have honest self acceptance and a positive, non-defeatist attitude
If we cannot accept ourselves we cannot accept others. If we cannot be comfortable with ourselves we cannot be comfortable with others; if we one of my favorite prayers.
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. (No defeatist attitude here.)
2. We need to find out what we are called to do
Finding out what we are called to do can be easy for some of us; challenging for others. It may take many tries, may require more courage than we think we have; greater willingness than we think we can muster. It may require trying, failing and trying again; and I would not rule out that it could take a lifetime of trying. Another of my favorite quotations compatible with Dr. King’s views is, we shall not cease from exploration; and the end of all our exploring will be to return to where we started and know the place for the first time.
In my explorations, I have been a homemaker, an educator, international civil servant, business owner, community leader, and most recently I took a big step out of my comfort zone and I ran for political office. How many times do you think Dr. King stepped out of his comfort zone?
3. We need to do our best always
We do whatever we are called to do with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our being, knowing that not everyone will become the best in his field or line of work, but that each of us can be the best at what we do; live the best life possible and achieve greatness in our own way. This little poem that Dr. King helped popularize explains his wise counsel well. I am sure you know it.
If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill
Be a scrub in the valley—but be
The best little scrub on the side of the hill,
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway just be a trail
If you can’t be the sun, be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or fail—
Be the best of whatever you are.
Dr. King also said:Even if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."
To understand fully what Dr. King means, of course, we need to know who Michelangelo, Handel, Beethoven and Shakespeare were and have some idea of the work they did. Here and now, in the 21st century, if we don’t know, it is easy to find out. Our public libraries are free community resources that offer print, digital materials and electronic resources for accessing the Internet. They provide information on every imaginable topic including great painters, composers and playwrights. With the press of a button we can learn about people (including ourselves) places and things. Simply Google your name or your home address and you might be surprised at the amount of information about you and your home that is already residing on the Internet. Cyberspace has taken away all our excuses for not being informed. Dr. King’s life story is in cyberspace along with his speeches and sermons. And by the way, with a computer at home, we don’t have to physically go to the library. From the comfort of our living rooms and bedrooms, we can reach through space and download the information we want.As part of our commemoration of Dr. King’s life today, I hope we can help to ensure that his legacy never gets neglected or taken for granted like products on a supermarket shelf. In the same way that our children and grand children and their children after them need to learn that apples and yams don’t originate in supermarkets but come from trees and vines that people plant, care for and harvest with effort and diligence, they also need to learn that before there was a community organizer who became President, there was a civil rights leader who preached non violence and led diverse groups of thousands in peaceful boycotts and marches for freedom; and that himself picked up the struggle where thousands before him left off.
· Let us commit to continued commemorations of Dr. King’s life’s work.
· Let us commit to doing our part to build on the legacy of Dr. King’s achievements
· Let us commit to never allowing Dr. King’s legacy to be taken for granted.
Only by doing so will we keep the dream alive and continue the journey to the Promised Land.
Keynote Speech by Eloise Gift at Commemoration Service for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Valencia UNM Campus, Los Lunas Saturday, January 19, 2013, 1:00 PM