What follows is a speech that I gave this morning at Central Michigan University's Martin Luther King, Jr., CommUNITY Peace Brunch.
Good morning, everybody! What a powerful testament to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that each of you are willing to come out here on this day off from school or work to celebrate and share in that legacy! Though we are not in class today, I hope you will learn a lot from me and from others who speak this morning. Pay good attention; there will be a quiz on this stuff later!
All kidding aside, as we gather here this morning, we remind ourselves that the legacy of Dr. King does not just focus on one person. We are not merely celebrating the birth of one of our nation’s greatest champions for justice. Rather, today is a call to all of us to bring his character and dedication to bear on our own lives. It is a reminder to dedicate our lives to a higher calling, just as Dr. King did. It is a calling to live a life of responsibility to our fellow humans, to sacrifice for the greater good, and to dedicate ourselves to justice for all.
First and foremost, we are called to responsibility. I’m willing to bet that most of you here today know a thing or two about responsibility. After all, many of us here are leaders in the CMU and Mt. Pleasant communities. Still, all of us need reminders about the importance of responsible citizenship. Indeed, our leadership roles make it even more important that we lead responsible lives; can we expect that those we lead will not take their cues from us?
We are called to foster in ourselves a sense of responsibility – responsibility toward ourselves and toward all of society. Being involved in our communities, lending out that helping hand to someone who needs it, voting, and maintaining proper decorum at all times – these are certainly just a few of the many ways in which each of us can live a life of responsibility. Beyond that, we must also be responsible by ensuring that our minds are open to beautiful new ideas which, if we let them, can change the world.
That sense of responsibility is woven together with another calling. We are called to a sense of sacrifice. This means both that we must recall the sacrifices of others, and that we must make some sacrifices ourselves.
Here in America, when we commemorate such days as Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and September 11 – Patriot Day – we are reminded to pause and reflect on the enormous sacrifice of those who have died in the service of our nation. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, we recall another life that was cut short all too soon. We would also do well to remember that many civil rights leaders of Dr. King’s era were beaten constantly, while others faced the intensity of fire hoses just because they stood up for people whose skin color did not match those of others.
Each of these should be sobering reminders that the quality of life we enjoy today was not gained for easily. May we always be vigilant to maintain this quality of life!
Fortunately, most of us will not suffer beatings or be forced to give up our lives for the sake of something great. Still, we must all sacrifice to a certain measure. As Gandhi said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed." A simple sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure is a great place to begin. Maybe you will share a few cans or boxes of food, an article of clothing that you’ve outgrown, or part of your most recent paycheck. Maybe you will give blood or plasma, or join a bone marrow donor registry. Maybe you’ll go on an Alternative Break. Perhaps you might take a few minutes to put together a care package for someone in uniform who is willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, or to personally thank a veteran for their service. Whatever your sacrifice may be, know that others have made far greater sacrifices than you, and that your sacrifice is very much needed.
And finally, we are called to justice. What does that mean? Let me put it to you this way: Is there a human being alive today who is inherently better than any other, or whose decency is founded in the color of their skin, their gender, their physical or mental abilities, or their sexual orientation? Recall, for a moment, this famous line from our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
And yet, we who are gathered here this morning know that the land in which we live is not one where justice for all reigns supreme. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," warned Dr. King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Threats remain to justice throughout our land and throughout the world. Yet what also remains is the power that lies within each of us to bring about a just society for all people. When I say we have a calling to justice, I mean that it is up to each of us to do our part to bring about a more fair, just society. You do not need to be a dean, a manager, or an elected official to change our society. We already have all we need to make that change; it is inside of us. We just need to put it to use.
So on this day off from school or work, we gather together to remind ourselves of lessons that cannot easily be taught in the confines of buildings named Anspach, Grawn, or Brooks. These are the lessons of character, commitment, and selflessness. On this day, let us dedicate our lives to, as Gandhi would put it, being "the change [we] want to see in the world." Let us press toward the mark of the higher calling of our lives – a calling to a life of responsibility, of sacrifice, and of justice. In doing so, let us make every day of our lives a lasting tribute to Dr. King.
Thank you, and enjoy this wonderful day!