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We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” Martin Luther King Jr. ,Letter From Birmingham Jail
An uncommon man leads in an common world, stripped bare of his dignity– but never his character, never his faith, never his soul. To see the struggle is mighty. To battle it heartily is righteous. To maintain your serenity and love is Godly. That defines leadership. That defined Martin Luther King Jr., a man who led the struggle no average man or woman dared endure.
As I look backward, I gaze forward. I celebrate the 25th anniversary of Dr. King’s holiday proudly, respectfully, and humbly. I celebrate a man who in today’s climate of poisonous rhetoric, and unintelligible debate– would have been called anything from a treasonous Marxist– to an unpatriotic socialist. Some in fact, would debase and demean his work, while claiming to carry the awesome mantle of Dr. King’s legacy. He demands more respect than that.
If Dr. King taught us anything, it was that sacrifice is a necessary burden of leadership. Leadership must be tethered to a righteous cause. It cannot be vacant in times of strife, or as the winds of discomfort shift the debate. Righteous causes exist to give our lives direction– to fill our souls with purpose. Dr. King knew his, and he shared it with all of us. Those able to walk in his graceful path were anointed with the spirit of compassion, the power of forgiveness, the strength of righteousness, and the glory of eternal love. With these qualities, man and woman shall endure. They shall prosper. They shall triumph over injustice and intolerance.
On this day, we should praise the true meaning of leadership. We all should aspire to the heights of a man who worried less about his own mortality–and more about the mortality of those four little girls– brutally murdered in Birmingham. Those little girls, whose lives “were distressingly small in quantity, but glowingly large in quality.” We should aspire to quality. We should wind our paths through gardens filled with light– never seeking comfort– but always giving it in doses large and small.
We have the power to lift the shadow of disappointment, cast widely upon us in times of difficulty. It is within us to seek the solution to our problems, and reject with great confidence any attempt to dissuade us from our cause. This is what real leaders choose. The path is never a clean one, but it is a necessary one. I pray I have the strength demanded of me to fulfill my promise. But in times of doubt, the words of a man who worried less about his own mortality, and more about the quality of life for others, assuage my fears:
…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Dr. King taught us that continuous struggle is a necessity of change. We can be the mechanism that fosters hope, as we continue to make that change a reality. There is no greater heir to the King legacy than that.