The Power of Words

Delivering more than 2,500 public speeches during his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used words – exquisitely crafted and powerfully delivered – to advance his dream of unity, justice and opportunity for all. Each year when we commemorate Dr. King’s life and legacy, I spend time reading his writings and listening to recordings of his presentations. As a speaker and a writer, it inspires me to study one of the greatest orators of our time, reflecting on his words as reverberations of the currents and connections which shaped our society at the time. As a human, the power and poetry of his words feed my soul and inspire me.

Dr. King lived and led in some of the most tumultuous times of the 20th century. While history never repeats itself exactly, it is often said to rhyme, and many of us hear an unmistakable couplet in considering Dr. King’s era and what we are experiencing in the world today. It leads me to believe that there are lessons to be learned from his writing which have applicability for us as we navigate our current times: understand our connection, act to make a difference, choose love and maintain optimism in the face of opposition.

“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.”
(Letter from a Birmingham Jail – April 1963)

What is especially striking about Dr. King’s prose, like the quote above, was the concepts he consistently spoke about often stood in juxtaposition to the realities of the day – unity in a time of discord, faith in a time of uncertainty and love in a time of hate. He spoke about what could be at a time when it was not. The interconnection of one human to another was one of his favorite themes. Recognizing each other’s humanity, facilitates empathy and understanding, highlights our common ground, and demonstrates how working together can make things better for us all.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?’”
(Montgomery, Alabama – 1957)

Dr. King knew the power of words. He also understood the power of putting those words into action through service to others. He articulated a concept called the beloved community where all are equal and cared for, and there’s no poverty, hunger or hate. Dr. King worked to make the beloved community a reality throughout his life. We all can play a part in creating a better today and tomorrow for others through service. Whether that is volunteering time, sharing expertise and skills, donating resources, or raising a voice in support, acting to serve others is in the best interests of us all.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
(Strength to Love – 1963)

Extreme disapproval or disagreement is sometimes expressed as hate. In one sermon Dr. King noted that loving his enemies was a part of his basic philosophical and theological orientation. He saw love as the only way to disrupt hate. Matching someone’s hateful attitude leads to a destructive spiral that harms all. Dr. King pointed out that often people dislike or make negative assumptions about others because they don’t know, understand, or communicate with them. We can each choose a different way. Being open to getting to know others and listening to their perspectives can lead to better understanding and finding common ground. Even when we disagree, we can do so without disparaging or disrespecting the other person’s humanity. It takes courage to love in the face of hate, but the benefits are worth it.

“I must confess that dream I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare. Now, I’m not one to lose hope, I still have faith in the future.”
(NBC News interview – May 1967)

Dr. King demonstrated that it was essential to have optimism in the face of opposition when seeking to translate a dream into reality. During his lifetime he was threatened, subjected to several violent attacks, stabbed, vandalized at home with bombs and fire, and arrested over 25 times. Yet he persevered and maintained his faith in the rightness of the cause to lift the poor and oppressed and create opportunities for a better quality of life for all. Dr. King noted that “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” The foresight to envision a better tomorrow must be paired with a faith that one can get there even when obstacles block the view.

“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.”
(August 1958)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in a time of challenge and controversy in the 20th century, and we are facing our own times of challenge as well. His courage of conviction allowed him to stand for what he believed in, even in the face of opposition. Dr. King showed that words matter as he used them to stir the nation’s conscience, galvanize a movement, and articulate a dream for equality and human rights. He paired the prose with self-less actions and became a role-model for servant leadership.

King Day, on the third Monday of January each year, is an annual call to stand and renew our commitment to serving others. Let’s make the beloved community a reality for all by acknowledging our connection to one another, acting to make a difference, choosing love and maintaining optimism in the face of opposition.