We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. for his courage, humanity and ideas

Martin Luther King Jr.
We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. for his courage, humanity and ideas. They are the same qualities that imbued the founding of this nation, albeit imperfectly. King effected monumental steps toward rectifying that.

He was a preacher, a civil rights activist and a social reformer. He led a movement that was opposed with fists, clubs, dogs, fire hoses, jail, bombs and death. He responded wearing the mantle he instinctively deemed appropriate at the time — sometimes invoking the Bible and a moral agenda, sometimes Lincoln and a political agenda, sometimes statistics and a social agenda. No one since has managed to juggle the three with such great and compelling skill.

King was of course a great orator, his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 being one of the signature addresses in American history. Even after repeated listenings, it still can give you goosebumps. But he had more than just inspiring words and intonation working for him.

King appealed to the better angels of America’s nature. Confronted with the injustices of Jim Crow, the majority of the nation understood they were fundamentally unfair, wrong and un-American. The legal barriers that had been erected to deny citizens their full, God-given rights were dismantled, and done the right way — not with dynamite, but peacefully and democratically, so that everyone could share in the accomplishment. To that end, King’s dream was realized.

Changing attitudes is more difficult. A stroke of a pen can alter the law of the land, but hearts are a lagging indicator of progress. Racism has not been eradicated, but it has declined.

Yet, even as state-mandated segregation ended long ago, Americans today voluntarily separate. We choose our friends and neighbors from among a multitude of preferences, including, but not limited to, commonalities of income, education, race, creed, national origin and gender. We are members of an increasingly diverse society who nevertheless seek the company of those who most resemble ourselves.

Is this a rejection of King’s dream? Or an ironic sign of its success — the result of the freedom of association he and his movement helped secure?

America should strive for equality in opportunity, not equality in outcomes. The former is associated with removing barriers, often government-constructed, to realizing individual potential. The latter involves the heavy hand of government interfering in people’s lives, which perversely promotes forms of discrimination.

King is heralded rightly as an emancipator of blacks, but civil rights are not limited to race or minority status. They belong to all of us — if some are not free, then ultimately none are. Thus was King fighting for us all. That is why he was a true American hero — no hyphen necessary.

King gave his life in service to the nation. Decades after his death, that contribution continues. Today’s holiday has evolved into a national day of service, a fitting legacy for a man who worked selflessly for the betterment of all Americans.

King never lived to see the racial unity he so fearlessly advocated for in his time, and it’s anybody’s guess what he would make of an America a half-century later. Blacks still face the lingering effects of discrimination across a range of fronts - jobs, housing, educational opportunity among them. The re-emergence of white supremacist groups also has brought a flashback of ugliness to the digital age.

Still, race relations are undeniably better within the four corners of the country. The nation’s political leadership at every level looks more like the communities it serves. Americans also have a sharper sense of what manifests as bigotry. Americans are increasingly upset with the way minorities are treated and cities across the nation are working to improve policing, schools and public services in heavily minority neighborhoods that have been long ignored.

As a civil rights activist and Baptist minister, King recognized the cause of justice would be waged over the long arc of history. “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase," he wrote. That was especially true with his nonviolent approach to social change during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. But King saw the good in humankind, if not the human condition. His inspiration was powerful because it was real. He knew the burden of hate would turn on itself and that every American would have a role in starting a new path of equal opportunity for all.

King paired his challenge of the status quo with a simple message: What are you going to do about it? For him, speaking out was only the first step in creating a more just, inclusive society. To that end, the evolution of the King federal holiday into a national day of service is a perfect way to carry on his legacy.

Thousands of residents around the area and nation will spend this holiday serving meals to the hungry, spending time with the elderly, repairing schools, homes and community centers and collecting clothes and food for those without. These projects address the true needs of communities, bring dignity and relief to our neighbors and build bridges across America that increase understanding. This outpouring of volunteerism - dubbed "a day on, not a day off” - keeps King’s legacy strong. Online tools can connect anyone interested to a project in their area.

Today’s celebration of King’s life cannot be separated from the embrace of his righteous ideals. In a nation sharply divided, his message of unity, equal opportunity and empowerment for all is as welcome as ever. King’s inspiration continues to shape the conscience of the nation. This holiday is a moment to honor King’s service by getting involved and reflecting on his faith in humankind.