As a child, I grew up hearing stories about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The national heroes of my country of birth like Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle were more familiar and more known to me. It was only when I immigrated to the United States as I teen that the importance of Dr. King and his work became more apparent. As an Enneagram type 5 and MBTI INTP, I started on a journey of investigating the life of this great American hero.
This investigation became the focus of both my undergraduate senior paper and my graduate thesis paper. The questions that permeated my inquiry were who was Martin Luther King Jr. as a human being? What factors made him the person he became? How did the leader of a movement that changed history in America emerge? What I discovered I would like to share with you as my remembrance of Dr. King on the holiday commemorating his life. I discovered a myth. I discovered a transforming moment, and I discovered how movements are born. These discoveries shaped how I understand Dr. King’s legacy and how I attempt to honor that legacy in my work.
So much of what we know about Dr King today is rooted not in the real life of the man but the mythology of the man. Concepts and beliefs persist as the more about Dr. King that are based more in popular culture than reality. This mythology has been used by some in recent years to distort Dr. King’s legacy and promote a performative kind of inclusion. One example is the content of character quote that is being used today to suggest Dr. King was promoting a color-blind world view.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The reality is that Dr. King knew all too well the realities of racial discrimination and sacrificed on a personal and professional level to address the racial inequities and injustices of his day. I don’t believe Dr. King was seeking to negate race and the impact of the social construct. That is what psychologists call a fixed mindset. As a learned theologian (yes, he was more than just a social justice advocate and was qualified to in academia if allowed), I think Dr. King was using a growth mindset and calling on the nation to expand its view of African Americans beyond the persistent tropes of the day. It is what John Powell of the Othering and Belonging Institute calls expanding our circle of human concern. I honor Dr. King by not ignoring attempts to diminish the value of difference but instead working to expand inclusion.
Dr. King did not fall easily into the role of the leader of the American Civil Rights movement. It is not that he resisted, but like many transformational leaders before him he was called not made. Callings are an interesting concept that doesn’t factor much in today’s highly individualistic society. Acceptance of a call requires counting the cost of acceptance. Dr. King counted the cost. The cost to his personal aspirations, the cost to his family, and the cost to his life. That cost weighed heavily on him as the movement began to emerge. As he wrote in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom:
“I was ready to give up… In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud…”
In was in his kitchen in a state of despair that Dr. King’s transforming moment occurred.
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying ‘Stand up for Righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared and I was ready to face anything.”
James Loder (my master’s thesis mentor) described a transforming moment as a moment of conviction when you know. You just know what you need to do regardless of the cost to you personally or individually. Dr. King’s transforming moment spurred him to move forward as the leader of a movement despite the potential that it might cost him his life, which it ultimately did.
One more thing about transforming moments: the outcomes of these moments of conviction aren’t about serving the individual, they are about serving others. I will honor Dr. King by seeking to live into my transforming moment whatever the cost.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s transforming moment thrust him into acceptance of leadership of a movement. The interesting thing about movements is though they are inspired by an individual leader, they are about much more than any one individual. They are about movement, change, and growth that benefits more than individual needs or segmented demographics.
As a DEI practitioner, I ponder on this occasion how well I am honoring the legacy of Dr. King’s movement-making. According to DEI Deconstructed author Lily Zheng, we are in a day and age when DEI has become another cottage industry focused on profit making instead of real change. That is contrary to the character of Dr. King’s legacy and the movement that came from it. As I remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I challenge myself with the reality that there is still work to be done. We have not arrived. Our society is not post racial, we haven’t reached the promised land of valuing difference, pursuing equity, and expanding inclusion. Dr. King will not get there with us but as a self-described change agent, I will remind myself that Dr. King led a movement for change.
I draw inspiration from his words:
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
How will you remember and honor Dr. King and his legacy this year?
I challenge you to move beyond the myths, seek your transforming moment, and be an ally in the movement for change that expands. Finally, let me recommend for further reading and exploring a couple books. The previously mentioned Stride towards Freedom, Conversations with Martin by Randall Jelks, and read a good biography of Dr. King as well.