Three important lessons we can learn from Dr. King’s legacy

January 19, 2023

Exactly 94 years ago to the day, a child was born in Atlanta, Georgia named Michael King, Jr., who would change the world. His father would eventually change his name in honor of the German leader of the Protestant Reformation, and it was by that name – Martin Luther King, Jr. – that the world would remember him nearly a century later.

Few names in modern American history ring more powerfully than Martin Luther King’s. He remains the only person born in the 20th Century for whom we celebrate a federal holiday. His name is synonymous with great speeches, with inspiring hope, and with the brutal assassination which took his life before he even reached the age of 40. His name is still invoked constantly in modern political discussions, and he arguably left a more profound, longer-lasting legacy than nearly any other American over the last century. When you think of great historical leaders, Martin Luther King’s name constantly makes the short list.

So what can we learn from Dr. King’s legacy? What knowledge can we apply to our own lives today to make the world a better place? It would be impossible to list all of them, but here are a few of the most important lessons from Dr. King’s life and legacy, as represented by some of the most powerful passages from his speeches:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness – only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate – only love can do that.” One of Dr. King’s most well-remembered quotes is also the one perhaps most relevant to our own lives. Our political system and even our popular culture are all heavily centered around the concept of conflict and hate. There is a whole industry in entertainment and politics built around the idea of outrage – we’re supposed to get mad at the people on the other side of the partisan fence, or we’re supposed to hate the celebrities who annoy us or do outrageous things. Hate may be an animating force – that is, it may get us out of our seats to do something, but that “something” is hardly productive or positive. Our world won’t get better until we stop revolving our collective existence around hate, and our collective existence won’t get better until we personally make the choice to stop the cycle of hate and try to find common ground with all people.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now… I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” MLK said those prophetic words the day before he died in a speech titled, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” Reading those words 53 years later, after all of the ups and downs we’ve experienced as a society, you still can feel their power to lift us up and make us hope for something better. There’s also a lesson there for all of us: leadership is sometimes as simple as inspiring a shared vision. We want to be reminded that the world can be better, and sometimes it’s up to us as leaders to do the reminding. We may not have the platform of Dr. King, but all of us have the potential to lift others up.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King’s most famous line was spoken more than 50 years ago, but it still describes a future we have not yet attained. We still have much to learn in how we treat those different from us, whether the lines that separate us are gender, race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, or any other countless divisions which still exist, and which motivate people to act with fear or hate. We will always be a nation of many different types of people, and those differences should be celebrated and embraced – but we can also work toward a future in which those differences no longer cause us to push away our fellow humans.

Dr. King was a revolutionary leader in many respects, and this month we will take just 24 hours to celebrate his legacy. What we do after the celebration will determine our own legacy.