On the third Monday of January, the United States commemorates the birth, life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) – an American Baptist minister and activist – as a national holiday, often heralded as a Day of Service. King remains a towering figure in the American Civil Rights movement. His efforts led to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.
As well, his reach was global. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, fighting against racial and social injustice through non-violence and civil disobedience. He inspired social movements and impacted profound change in South Africa and Northern Ireland. King called for unity in Germany, standing at the Wall that divided East from West. In East Berlin, he preached: “Regardless of the barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together. There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another.”
King also had connections to Asia. He was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his tenets of non-violent resistance and Satyagraha (Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह, ’truth force’). He was a fierce opponent of the War in Vietnam and spoke against colonialism and imperialism.
And King had ties to the academy. He graduated with a BA in Sociology from Morehouse College (1948), a BDiv from Crozer Theological Seminary (1951), and a PhD from Boston University (1955, dissertation entitled A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman). Dr. King was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, including at Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin and Grinnell. In 1967, he received an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law at Newcastle University. A half-century later, in 2017, the University unveiled a bronze statue of King as a tribute to the values of social justice for which he stood; they hosted a year-long series of events to explore racism, poverty and war through education and art.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, months before his 40th birthday. Imagine the world today if he had lived and been able to carry out his dream (text/video) for a better world, mobilizing others with his powerful vision and oration. King’s vision sadly remains unrealized, yet as potent as ever – especially with global populist movements along with divisive tenets of nationalism and anti-immigration.
The BBC has named Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the most influential people of the 20th Century, an icon. He was feared and loathed by many during his lifetime, yet his service to humanity and social justice are indisputable. Dr. King called for developing an “overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole… a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation … and all-embracing and unconditional love for all.” Amen.