If you are reading this, Martin Luther King Jr. saved your soul.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy as a leader and civil rights crusader is only a small fraction of his gift to the world. His enduring contributions are far greater and wider reaching for our shared experience and personal enlightenment. His work impacts every single person born into the world, even those born well after King passed. Here's why:
"A man can't ride your back unless it's bent." -- Martin Luther King Jr. (1)
Martin Luther King Jr.'s work as a civil rights activist was not just about black and white. It was about humanity. His call from the mountaintop was fundamentally about one word: dignity. All of us, no matter our skin color, where we come from, who we know, how much money we have or don't have, what our abilities are, are entitled to dignity. Each of us exists against odds too big to calculate, or even comprehend. We all have our unique struggles and regardless of what our skin looks like we deserve the respect of others.
"I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear." -- Martin Luther King Jr. (1)
One of King's most enduring triumphs is that he fought a seemingly impossible fight without actually fighting. His insistence that the civil rights movement be based in non-violence was a triumph for all humanity. It is not possible to advocate for the dignity of all while simultaneously ignoring the rights of people opposed to your cause. Non-violence is the reason that King's call was ultimately heard. Had he permitted violence, he would have only provided ammunition for the status quo to deride the civil rights movement as extremist and further entrenched the forces of racism. King understood that characterizing blacks (especially black men) as violent has been a time-tested strategy for keeping racial oppression in place in our country. By making the movement non-violent, he ensured its long-term success.
"And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair." -- Martin Luther King Jr. (2)
I would argue that in many ways, this is King's greatest legacy. His courage to proceed in a mission that, by any rational calculation would have been doomed to fail, is a lesson for all of us to learn. Without hope, without faith that there can be a better future, there will not be one.
King scored a victory for dignity, peace, and hope. His work laid the groundwork for each of us to live lives in line with these ideas, and this enriches our collective souls. Jan. 15, 2014 would have been King's 85th birthday. I encourage you to take some time to consider his contributions and see what you can do to further the work he began so that we may all claim the spoils of the victory he achieved.
1. Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (16 August 1967)
2. Speech during the Great March on Detroit at Cobo Hall (23 June 1963)
Dr. Ben Michaelis is a clinical psychologist in full-time private practice in Manhattan. Dr. Michaelis writes and speaks regularly about mental health, creativity, spirituality and motivation. He is the author of numerous popular and scholarly articles and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. Dr. Michaelis is a frequent guest on nationally syndicated TV shows such as, NBC's The Today Show, The Hallmark Channel's Home & Family, and MSNBC's Your Business. Dr. Michaelis is the author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy.