Martin Luther King’s struggle ended with an assassin’s bullet nearly 50 years ago, but his message and example live on. He taught us all many things, but I think especially of six lessons.
The first is the prime values of conscience and courage. Every struggle starts with the “I”. There’s no avoiding personal choice and personal commitment.
Second, while it starts with the “I’, it can’t end there. It’s a social struggle, that involves being able to connect with others, to draw in other groups, and this comes with the power of leadership and inspiration.
Third, means and ends go together. The use of violence and even division can destroy the integrity of justice itself.
Fourth, there will be setbacks and hardships on the way. We look back at Dr King’s life and think of him quite rightly as a hero. But he was hated and vilified in his time, facing it not only from his enemies but from those who wanted him to further and faster. He was tested, and knew great loneliness. He was not perfect. He was human, and knew failure more than he knew success in his lifetime.
Fifth, he was prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice. He knew that his commitment required no less. Remember Nelson Mandela’s famous last words at his sedition trial – that he was prepared to fight for his beliefs but was even prepared to die for them as well.
Finally, we pay the greatest tribute to Dr King not by thinking of him as a saint or an icon but by continuing to re-commit ourselves to the ideals and issues he made his own. We have major civil rights battles in our own time, and it will require the same courage, commitment, and eloquence to face them. The struggle does indeed continue.