Reflecting on MLK’s Words

It is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, and it’s impossible to overstate how much this social activist did to advance equality and human rights in the United States. As an English major, one of the things I admire most about MLK is how he crafted clear and compelling messages. His actions are only part of his legacy — his words challenged all of us to think about who we were, who we wanted to be, and how to effect change.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, Ala. Photographed by Dave.
I took this picture of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, Ala., on January 19, 2019.

Today, I’d like to celebrate MLK by explaining what three of his famous quotes mean to me.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

What MLK is saying here is that progress exacts a price. Change only happens when we’re willing to work for it. Just hoping for change isn’t enough. This sentiment doesn’t necessarily mean that we all must become martyrs — we can start by investing our attention, time, and money.

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

As a gay man, I have seen many setbacks as our country slogs toward equality and dignity for LGBTQ people — DOMA and DADT are just two examples. This quote has always given me hope that setbacks are temporary and that, in the long run, we’re headed in the right direction. But — and this is very important — we must combine this quote with the previous one. The arc might bend toward justice, but progress requires action. MLK is telling us that if we’re willing to put our feet on the accelerator, our journey will take us away from bigotry, discrimination, and hatred. If we idle in the car, we go nowhere.1

“For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good men to do nothing.”

To me, this quote speaks to the power of allies. When social systems are designed to ignore the voices of disenfranchised groups, those groups need people inside those systems to actively disseminate their messages and testify to their humanity. Again, my experience with this comes from my experience as a gay man. Rights for LGBTQ people advance every time a straight person passionately and forcefully champions our cause.

1 Mychal Denzel Smith dissected this quote on MLK Day in 2018. He reached a conclusion similar to mine: “This use of the quotation, though, carries the risk of magical thinking. After all, if the arc of the moral universe will inevitably bend toward justice, then there is no reason for us to work toward that justice, as it’s preordained. If it is only a matter of cosmic influence, if there is no human role, then we are off the hook. This isn’t how King meant it, as evidenced by the work to which he dedicated his own life.”