Recently, admirers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated a new monument in his honor in Washington, D.C. The memorial includes a large, stone statue of King and a 450-foot inscription wall featuring more than a dozen quotes from King, the revered civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.
We’re glad the memorial contains some of King’s words, which are probably his most lasting legacy. He had remarkable physical courage, but the civil rights movement was blessed by others with courage. King was a shrewd political tactician, but politics wasn’t his real achievement. When most of us envision King, we see him on a podium, speaking. What he said continues to resonate in a world where equality, justice and human brotherhood too often remain elusive.
Here, in part, is what King said before a quarter of a million listeners gathered on Aug. 28, 1963:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. ... 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.”
The world has changed dramatically since King’s death. Phones rest in our pockets, laptops sit on our desks and man has planted his feet on the moon. The Internet throws its web across the globe. King warned us, though, that technology alone could not advance humanity. We needed moral progress, too.
Here, again, is King:
“Mammoth productive facilities with computer minds, cities that engulf the landscape and pierce the clouds, planes that almost outrace time — these are awesome, but they cannot be spiritually inspiring. Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material growth has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leave the person outside. The sense of participation is lost, the feeling that ordinary individuals influence important decisions vanishes, and man becomes separated and diminished.
“When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in modern society.”
We believe that King would be disappointed, though not surprised, to see a world of instant information — a planet swarming with tweets and emails — in which so much spiritual distance between so many people still exists.
We continue to live in a social order touched by divisions — between political parties, between religious sects, between those of different races, genders, sexual persuasions.
Bridging those divisions will require not technical genius, but moral resolve and basic compassion.
Stone monuments aside, the highest tribute that we can give to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. is to remember what he said, and to act as he wanted us to.