Editorial: MLK Day offers opportunity for reflection, service

A mere 40 years have passed since the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the law of the land, and even fewer since all 50 states adopted an MLK holiday that will be observed tomorrow.

King’s legacy began in the pulpit, and his work toward equality and a more just, free and democratic society remains a guiding and inspiring light not just in America, but around the world.

The lessons to be learned from King’s life — and from his death at the hands of an assassin — continue to be precious, tragic, hopeful, confounding and unfulfilled. We continue to stumble and strive toward the vision that King spoke of in the greatest American speech of the 20th Century.

A mere 60 years ago this August, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before some 250,000 people in the nation’s Capitol.

A mere 100 years before that, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed America’s slaves.

King’s speech — required reading in full for any student of American history — is best remembered for a couple of lines that have resonated down through the decades.

“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,” is perhaps most widely known.

But like the speech’s rousing conclusion — “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last” — both of these express aspirations for a better world, and a call for all of us to do our part to help bring it about.

The powerful forces that shape our world are often beyond our ability to influence, a truth that King understood brutally well. Yet King also understood the power of each of us as individuals, and he encouraged us to seize those opportunities.

Consider some of these quotes from King on the value of simple service to others:

  • “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
  • “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
  • “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
  • “Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. […] Every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’ I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.”

MLK Day is an opportunity for reflection and for an open-ended commitment to serve your fellow man. Tomorrow, volunteers in Columbus will join for a United Way Day of Service in honor of Dr. King that will benefit numerous local charities and nonprofits.

But truly, anytime is a good time to serve, as Dr. King reminded us in these immortal words: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”