By Peggy O’Brien
I am writing today—on Martin Luther King’s real birthday—because his presence in the world and in my life had so much to do with why I became a teacher, and because the words that he left with us continue to challenge and inspire so many of us. We need that inspiration . . . perhaps especially right about now.
Even though I liked school and loved some of my teachers, when I was growing up, I had never thought about a life in teaching. Not even for a minute. In 1968, as a college junior in Washington, DC, however, I began to be educated by the Civil Rights Movement: noticing who rode DC buses where, realizing who worked for whom, standing on the roof of my dorm watching parts of this city burn during the riots that erupted after Dr. King’s death.
Out of all of that came my conviction that to help people connect to the power of their own brains was probably the most important kind of social activism on earth. (I have never stopped believing this.) After graduation, I started teaching in a DC public high school. And so it went.
Dr. King’s influence led me there. Now, as an old lady, I am even more astounded by his power and his eloquence and his youth. A dramatic memorial to Dr. King was finally dedicated here in DC a few years ago. He looms large at the edge of the Tidal Basin, a mountain of a man staring across the water into the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, president and slave-holder, who is tucked up in that memorial of his own.
While the statue is central, my favorite parts of the King Memorial are his words. They line the walls of the memorial, and in honor of his birthday, I am offering you some of them here. Also in honor of his birthday, I invite you to come to Washington, DC. See the King Memorial, and then visit us at the Folger. Two men with big ideas, right ideas, and who knew what to do with words. Pretty fine company here!
Have these few words of Dr. King . . . all of them written in the 13 years between his 26th and 39th birthdays:
–“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” (1959)
–“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” (1967)
–“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” (1964)
–“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.” (1963)
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated when he was 39 years old.