Lessons we can still learn from Dr. King

‘No one has to lose for us all to join together and envision a more free and just society’

By Nishelle Gonzales
Reader Contributor

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known for dedicating his life to the Civil Rights Movement. Every third Monday of January we are called and encouraged to reflect on the principles of racial equity and nonviolent social change that Dr. King brought to the forefront of national reckoning. His life’s mission eventually delivered some of the fruits of his labor, as many laws and social changes resulted. As Americans are aware, not all have been ripe for the freedom of picking. We still have work to do. In that spirit, here are some key takeaways from Dr. King’s legacy that we can implement in our continued quest for equality:

One of the successful approaches he adopted from Mahatma Gandhi was the use of nonviolence against others who were oppressing people of color. That did not mean he and his partners in this coalition for change were not met with violence from the opposition, as he was assassinated in 1968.

Even people within his own movement would criticize him for his ability to take the high road and conduct himself peacefully despite he and other protesters being assaulted and arrested, their families threatened and reputations tarnished. People gave up their lives and safety for the common cause of equal human rights. To stay silent was to live in the shadow of a Constitution that didn’t actually promise what it preached. The stakes were and are too high for fellow constituents to hold steadfast in complacency. Fueled by anger, wisdom and love for our nation, holding these non-exclusive truths in their hearts, changes began to take place. And more changes are still needed. 

Another important angle of Dr. King’s, was the use of vision. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was moving because it was an outline of what he was envisioning our country to be. He focused on what equal human rights looked like, not on all the problems of not having them imposed. It’s easy to point out the hardships, as we are all living them in real time. Elections are fueled by slinging mud at the opposition, focused on the reality of negative outcomes with very little focus on what the solutions are and what the picture of our future would look like when these equal rights are in place. 

Dr. King painted us a picture where a world could come together for the greatest good of all. A future hope and a kind of generosity displayed, elevating humans to a higher potential than where we currently are. He told us that he believed in us. He had faith in us to create a better world. He described a “world where my four little children were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” To commemorate his progress, his life and his sacrifice, please carry this approach in your hearts when you’re at your wits end with all the problems facing our nation. 

When you begin a conversation with, “Things are really terrible, can you believe that the [insert group you don’t agree with] said this or did that?” you end up focusing on the negative. Also, you end up spreading the message of the opposition by reiterating it, even when using it as an extreme example. These conversations have their uses, but use them sparingly. Words matter. And, whatever you believe politically, repetition becomes a message spreader, even when you disagree with the message. 

What if we focused on repeating what a better world would actually look like, instead of what it doesn’t look like? We all know what the current state looks like because we’re all living it; and, depending on where you live, what your social and economic status is, the color of your skin, age, your gender or sexuality, your lived experiences can be very different. We must believe in each other’s reality even when it’s different from our own. That is why it has been important to understand our complicated past about our nation. 

Its various promises of liberty and opportunity were not initially intended for anyone but wealthy, white, male landowners, so it has never been free to all of its people, but we are getting closer every generation. If you feel uneasy about the changes coming that allow for a more free and just nation, then you need to address that your adversity to change is just that — an adverse reaction of the unknown, because we’ve never charted this territory before. It becomes a fear response and resources can appear finite when we elevate to play the infinite game of power with each other instead of power over each other.

Equality is not a zero sum game. No one has to lose for us all to join together and envision a more free and just society. When we feel unsure about moving forward, it’s easy to stop dreaming. We are in a very juvenile stage of our nationhood, as we are the restless teenagers of the world’s family. We have progressive ideas — things we want to accomplish that are out of line with the status quo of the much older world nations. We get to experiment, our Constitution has a built-in mechanism for amending outdated laws and processes when they no longer reflect what’s best for the culture. We get to ebb and flow, try and fail. Most importantly, like Dr. King so eloquently put it, we get to dream. And that may be the most American value we can hold dear. 

Celebrate this day by reimagining your dream for our nation and how we can get others to do the same. We can’t afford to take this American dream and give up on it, for it has yet to fully come into fruition. What is the most beautiful vision for our nation you can dream about?

Nishelle Gonzales is an occasional Reader contributor on social and political issues, as well as a board member for the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.

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