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Commentary Search

Why I don't know much about MLK

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center
An equal opportunity manager would likely caution me in discussing civil rights through a personal commentary, but I decided to be stronger than both of our misgivings.

I'm likely among millions of Generation Xers who were not connected to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s history, by default.

After all, I was born in 1968, so I also missed Dr. King's marches and speeches. It's also the year he was assassinated, April 4, at the age of 39.

President Ronald Regan signed the federal holiday into law back in 1983, first celebrated three years later, before school curricula on it could reach me when I graduated.

There's also this lack of a physical connection to the holiday. It's normally just a cold winter's day with weak sunlight. There are no fireworks to light, no pine trees or chicken eggs to decorate, no parades or gravesites to visit. There are no flags flown. There are no heart-shaped boxes of candy to gift to a loved one.

Sadly, this amazing man that we celebrate - and the laws and the minds that he helped change - did not consciously influence me, but I was lucky enough to pay attention to his importance due to the holiday, and to my love of writing.  I'll explain.

So I felt a bit lost a few years ago in what to do with the paid day off that Dr. King gave me. It was a guilty feeling. I knew that I was supposed to do more, so when his national memorial was unveiled in 2011, I made it a priority to visit it.

I had seen all of the memorials on the national mall from a past assignment in DC, but I was not as excited as I was to see Dr. King's. That was due to my college English 101 professor, Mr. Morell, who had labeled Dr. King as one of our nation's greatest writers. I also believe that too many do not appreciate him as this.

We covered Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and "I Have a Dream" in class and what many consider masterful examples of punctuation and rhetoric; among his many other acclaimed skills through papers, letters and speeches. It was truly through Dr. King that I first appreciated great writers who were not passionate novelists, but rather those who wrote for something beyond.  

So when I read that Dr. King's words were a central part of the new memorial, I was hoping to read some of his great writing. I was not disappointed. If fact, the granite inscriptions along the north and south walls changed my whole regard.

"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," is inscribed on the south wall, quoted of Dr. King in DC, 1968.

"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective," is another quote of Dr. King in Georgia, from 1967, inscribed on the south wall.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy," is a quote of Dr. King from 1963, inscribed on the north wall.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly," is inscribed on the north wall, quoted from Dr. King in Alabama, 1963.

There are so many more inscriptions and inspirations found there; moreover, the sculpted figure of Dr. King, chiseled into the Stone of Hope. I find it hard to believe that anyone could leave this place of honor unaffected.

In my mind, I had visited the memorial because Dr. King was this role-model writer, but I left the memorial with Dr. King as a mentor in so many new ways.  

Those are my experiences with Dr. King. They are things that I recall to celebrate him. It's probably not enough, but it's growing.

The holiday now stops me every third Monday in January to think of my time at the memorial, but better still, to remain open for opportunities to learn more about civil rights in the coming year.