As we approach the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I find myself feeling rather reflective. Dr. King's legacy is too often boiled down to the closing words of his "I Have A Dream" speech, but his message was so much more than that. During his short life, Dr. King issued a challenge to America. He dared her to live up to her promise to be a great nation; where all are seen as equal.
This man, who became a college graduate at age 19 and a theologian by 22, was described in police records, in government surveillance and in the news reports of his time as a racial agitator, a criminal and a communist sympathizer. The name-calling allowed those who found comfort in the status quo to ignore the fact that America's promise did not extend to all her citizens.
During the height of the Civil Rights Era, Dr. King walked a fine line between those who thought he asked too little of our country and those who thought he asked too much. However, his belief in what America could be is what made it possible for me to be who I am. An entrepreneur, a civic leader, and a political activist. I take my cues from Dr. King. Not that milquetoast King they teach school children about these days. Nah. I am a disciple of a radical King. A man who was an unrepentant trouble-maker. The one who demanded both economic and social justice. The one who spoke out against unbridled militarism. The one who said warned that "in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Despite what at times appeared to the contrary, Dr. King had an unyielding belief in the underlying goodness of the American people. I suffer a similar affliction. Although an assassin's bullet robbed us of Dr. King's leadership and optimism, his challenge to America remains. Now, no one person embodies the modern day Civil Rights movement. We understand that each of us has a part to play in making America truly great. It's what I think King meant when he wrote this in his letter from a Birmingham jail, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... It is the inter-related structure of reality."
Think of that the next time you see something unkind, unjust or unfair and are tempted to think 'not my problem.' In fact, it is your problem. And it will be until America finds the courage to live up to her promise to everyone.
Every year around Veteran's day, I am asked to write a service members' story. This year, I interviewed a 63 year old woman. She told me how she volunteered for Vietnam, despite having a high draft number that made it very unlikely she'd ever be called up to fight.
Nonetheless she joined the Marines, understanding that she might be killed in combat like the 58,220 other souls who died as part of that conflict. However, after surviving her Vietnam-era service and several more combat deployments after that, she made a decision.
She decided, if she was going to continue to live, it would be as the woman she always knew she was. She would eventually retire from the Marines as a signal intelligence electronic warfare chief. Now, working as a government contractor, she tells me that she has been working in defense of this country for the last 45 years.