In 1968, shortly before his death, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech pondering his legacy. He reflected, “Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say.” It is human nature for an individual to ponder how he or she will be remembered after the earthly departure. Presidents want to be remembered for their achievements in office. Artists want to be remembered for their most discerning works. Many are content with being remembered simply for their devotion to family. What, then, of a unique historical figure like Reverend King, the American champion of civil disobedience?
King himself eloquently answered for us this very question. “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness, and all of the shallow things will not matter.”
As we recognize the birthday of Reverend King again this year, it is crucial to look at the man from this perspective. While he may have died over 40 years ago, time has shown that the tempo kept by this visionary drum major has singularly transformed the fabric of American society. This accomplishment is indicative of the dynamic power of rallying an idea around an individual.
The official recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the third Monday of January each year serves as an important reminder of the unmatched influence of certain individuals in changing the makeup of a nation. American culture loves its heroes, and every schoolchild is taught of the near-divine statuses of elected leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Unlike these men, however, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the dream he proffered were not elected by a majority of American citizens. On the contrary, King had been fighting for the cause for many years before civil rights became (even tenuously) politically viable. While the reverend's dream was not called for by the American people, it was a necessary vision to address silent ailments festering below the surface of society.
This year, the celebration of the life and work of Reverend King fell on another important day, that of the second inaugural address of the nation’s first African American president. In his speech, President Obama alluded to King’s legacy, proclaiming that all of us are created equal, harking back, “to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
As long as there is a heterogeneous United States of America, there will be social ills that plague our interpersonal interactions. Yet there will also always be the lesson of freedom and equality handed down from our Founding Fathers. There are times when society will be reluctant to change, but there will persist the idea on which the diverse American fabric has been woven. Sometimes it takes an ordinary person to take up that idea and remind each and every one of us of its profound import. Such was the case with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most instrumental drum majors this nation has ever seen.