Monday, January 16, 2012

"I've Been to the Mountaintop. And I Don't Mind."

There is no disputing the impact Martin Luther King, Jr. had on the direction of the United States and the world.  His biography is well known, his struggles part of American lore.  He took on entrenched interests, fought in an insurgency focused on non-violence and rallied a generation behind his words and dreams.  He disrupted the world, and our nation is the better for it.

His words did not sit well with the incumbent powers.  Even today, some of his rhetoric is uncomfortable as we are forced to look deep within ourselves.  But his thoughts had an impact few have matched.   He was but one man in the march towards deeper freedom, but spoke for those without a voice.

Before I let his words take the stage, one note about his life.  We tend to mythologize our American heroes -- putting them on pedestals that no mortal human could ever hope to sustain.  We imagine them as perfect beings, never tiring of the fight, always shining beacons of integrity.  None of our Founding Fathers met this standard, nor have our war heroes or civil rights lions.  MLK had his own foibles, his own demons he fought.  These are sometimes ignored when talking of his legacy. 

Yet, acknowledging these failings makes his work that much more meaningful.  He was a fallen man, first and foremost.  As a preacher, he understood this, as such acknowledgement is the cornerstone of redemption.  Furthermore, in the retelling of history, it makes his accomplishments that much more meaningful.  Instead of being an unattainable role-model, we too can fight injustice amidst our own failings.  Imperfection isn't an impediment.  We are all works in progress.

I've chosen to focus on quotes most applicable to the theme of this blog.  He was a champion for the impoverished, a leader in Civil Rights.  But he also knew what it meant to think disruptively -- and used that knowledge to win the battles he fought.


“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. ... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

“Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Light in the Darkness
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.
Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

"A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi to come back — but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you."
-Marian Wright Edelman


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