Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Michael Ochs Archives
Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is an opportunity for some people to sleep in, and for others to get up and go serve others.
I’ve always liked that idea of this important holiday as a day of service, and I can think of no more beautiful way to recognize someone than to give and serve in his name.
Plenty of photos exist to show King’s personal service and sacrifice, including his ultimate sacrifice. But I think one of the most enduring gifts he gave was that of his words. Linking arms and marching represents just one side of this national hero. It is good to remember that some of his hardest effort happened while he was immersed in books, engaged in thought and meditation, and with a pen in his hand.
King was a visionary. He could make such a lasting contribution to the world’s understanding because he was equipped with such a profound intellect, and he put in the effort to supplement and improve it with study and contemplation.
We know he absorbed every word of Ghandi, and that he quoted him throughout his life. And Henry David Thoreau was another important figure in his study. It goes without saying that this Baptist minister was influenced by the philosophy of Jesus, and by his examples and his thinking, as recorded in the Gospels.
He was inspired by Plato, Rousseau, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and he also loved literature, including Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy, and so many others. The insights he gained through poetry and fiction informed his philosophy and even his rhetorical style.
As a nation, we face a number of challenges. It is good to remember that one of the most important ways we can serve is to rededicate ourselves to learning and understanding. It’s no longer acceptable—and in fact it never was—to brush off difficult concepts about science, economics, government, or the social contract because they’re too far beyond our comprehension.
To make positive change in the world, in the manner but doubtlessly not the measure that King did, we will need to be vigilant. We will need to ask the right questions, and we will have to dedicate ourselves to deep study, and to communicating what we learn.
I can’t think of any revolution that didn’t start with language. We can think of those Gospels, or of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, or of our Declaration of Independence—“declaration” signifying words. Every great change requires action, yes, but it is rooted in language and thought.
It is heartening to know that everywhere in this country, dedicated people are feeding the hungry and helping those who are desperately in need, all in the name of our great exemplar, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And I hope some are recommitting themselves to reading, and to contemplation of things read.
Montford, Christina. "8 Books That Inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Atlanta Black Star,
Raab, Nathan. "10 People Who Inspired Martin Luther King (And He Hoped Would Inspire Us)." Forbes,