Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King: A man more complex than one speech

San Jose, USA - Celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life often focus on his famous “I have a dream” speech, spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1963. Americans born after Dr. King's assassination often relate to that speech as a definitive synopsis of Dr. King’s beliefs.

That speech was a realistic, positive, and uplifting expression of Dr. King's dream and vision for a renewed America. However, there was so much more to Dr. King than that one speech. Dr. King was a complex and compelling human being.

In August, 1963, there were civil rights activists who felt that the march on Washington was a watered-down, sanitized version of the kind of demonstration needed to make a stronger statement to the American government about the problems of discrimination, inequality, and racism within the society.

However, Dr. King was willing to heed the concerns of President Kennedy, who called the civil rights leader prior to the March on Washington, explaining that if the massive gathering took a negative turn, it would severely hinder efforts to push civil rights legislation through Congress.

Dr. King rose above the petty negative in his speech, avoiding divisive issues that splintered America and reduced the possibilities of achieving positive results. He painted a vision of America which he hoped would soon materialize:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former Slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… 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… I have a dream that one day... right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…”

It seems that such a vision would have appealed to God, but it did not appeal to all Americans then, nor sadly now. We still have a cultural tendency to not fully examine anyone’s character without first making a judgment on, say, skin color. For the most part, we are easily swayed by the superficial features of individuals and public personalities, often content to limit our assessments of people to what appears on the surface.

Growing up in the United States during the 1960s, it was possible to be oblivious to the Civil Rights movement, but for those who were paying attention to events in the nation at the time, history was being forged right before their eyes as the country changed in dramatic ways. It almost seems impossible to conceive that less than 50 years ago, people in a part of our country had grown so callous to the value of human beings that entrenched hatred led to extremes of brutality and murder as a way to ensure political and social control of their fellow human beings.

However, when we look at some of the violent crimes of hatred, against color, sexuality, religion, that is still happening today, maybe it is not so hard to imagine.

It took a local Christian clergyman, who was not afraid to stand up for the rights of his people to spark America’s conscience. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up and spoke out at the risk of his family’s safety and at the risk of his life.

Is it any wonder that people of all races were attracted to his message and for his efforts?

Dr. King was more than just a black preacher from the south that carried the cause of his people's suffering. He was a well-educated man who had studied systematic theology at Boston University where he earned his PhD. He could speak to the minds as well as the hearts of the many Americans that were listening to him. Beyond his words, he strove to practice what he preached.

More than most Americans of faith, he was able to put his faith into practical action. More than most Christians in America, he was able to practice loving of one’s enemy. Even those Christian ministers who preach it are truly challenged when it comes to substantially practicing such an admonition from Jesus.

However, King also used the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi to transform his beliefs into practical applications for positive change. Ghandi’s concept of Satyagraha, or sincere resistance to tyranny through civil disobedience in India did help people achieve independence from British rule.

It is not well known that in 1959, Dr. King travelled to India with the help from the Quakers to visit Ghandi’s birthplace. This trip left a powerful impression upon him.

A third major inluence upon his thinking was Henry David Thoreau’s work Civil Disobedience. In his essay Thoreau argued that individuals should not allow governments to eradicate personal conscience; That each person had a duty to resist becoming complacent while allowing their government to mold them into willing accomplices to injustice.

Thoreau was motivated to write such an essay due to his disgust with slavery and the Mexican – American War.

This complex blend of thought and peaceful agitation was at the core of what Dr. King brought to the United States in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was only 39 years old when an assassin claimed his life – hard to believe he accomplished so much is such a short time. Despite whatever else Dr. King represented, he was a man of deep faith and genuine conscience who left an indelible mark on America and upon the world awakening a nation’s consciousness and elevating a nations’s conscience.

That is why it is proper to honor him by remembering his life on this day.