Our students, familiar with Dr. King because of his legacy and his service to our country, have, like most of us, read or at least listened to his great “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. On our visit to Washington DC our students visit the Lincoln Memorial and stand in the exact spot where Martin Luther King Junior stood as he looked out on hundreds of thousands of people and uttered those famous lines “I have a dream!” Those words mobilized a generation and today still capture our hopes and our dreams and our best intentions.
But the true genius of Martin Luther King Junior was not the speeches he gave in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
The true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was not his association with presidents and leaders throughout the world.
No the true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was his ability to live the words that he so eloquently spoke. When he spoke of making a difference, he lived a life that made a difference. He was able to put into action the words that he spoke about our hopes and dreams.
The true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was that he not only was able to talk about the importance of supporting one another he was able to live a life that showed he really did care about other people.
Emblematic of this commitment was Dr. King’s last recorded speech. It was given on April 3, 1968, in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a speech given to support the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King would be shot and killed.
Think about that for a moment.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last recorded speech was given in a church in Memphis, Tennessee to support . . . garbage men.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Nobel Peace Prize awardee in 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – public speaker whose I Have a Dream speech attracted over 250,000 people to Washington DC in April 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – honored by presidents and politicians.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the power and the social cachet to do and be almost anything. Yet on April 3, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak to and support . . . those who picked up other people’s garbage.
Why would he do that?
A clue is contained in the speech that he gave that evening.
In this speech Dr. King talks about the tendency of people – people like you and me – to engage in “compassion by proxy.”
The tendency of people to talk about the importance of helping other people, the tendency of people to recognize the need other people have, the tendency of people to understand intellectually that there is a problem, the tendency of people to actually see a problem but to not get involved.
Compassion by proxy is the belief that we are compassionate if we recognize and talk about the problem.
Dr. King emphatically and strongly stated that if we believe that we can be compassionate by proxy we are wrong.
Dr. King was clear. Compassion requires investment.
Compassion requires getting out of our office, out of our homes, out of our cars, and into the lives of those we seek to help.
We cannot be truly compassionate if we refuse to visit, help, work with, stand next to, sit with, eat with, talk to, walk with, and be with those who need our help.
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because we too believe in what he stood for. We believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., words that call us forward to support and help other people.
But we would miss the true intent and the true power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if we do not recognize that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls us to get involved, to act, to actually do something for others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be glad that we honor him but more importantly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be happier if we actually do the work of being compassionate.
Let each of us commit to action that will make a difference for our community.
Let each of us identify specific things that we can do to support the cause of justice.
Let each of us find ways to help everyone in our community find their voice.
Let each of us not be satisfied with compassion by proxy.
Let each of us become people of action, those that will and do make a difference for others in our community.