Martin Luther King Jr. never held public office, though he considered running for president briefly in 1967. Yet he may have been responsible for more profound change in institutions and attitudes in the United States than any American of the 20th century.
His life is a testament to the capacity of determined nonviolent protest and resistance rather than violence and bitterness to bring about change.
It is not surprising the legacy of this man who was so controversial during his lifetime is still understood only incompletely, and people even today, 40 years after he was assassinated on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tenn., disagree about its significance.
Like most humans who contemplate the implications of faith and justice, he was more complicated than his admirers or detractors fully understood.
Although some denominations recognize him as a saint, he got angry and he made mistakes. It is likely that he plagiarized some of his doctoral dissertation, and there is likely truth to rumors that he was a womanizer.
Yet through the temptations and vicissitudes of becoming the most emblematic leader of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he maintained confidence in the effectiveness of non-violent methods to bring about change.
It is Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquence that we remember with Monday’s holiday, his way with words, the biblical cadences he employed to plead that his children be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, to offer his vision of the promised land of equal treatment and human dignity.
His eloquence was complemented by personal courage and organizational ability, and the willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Protesting through civil disobedience against laws one considers unjust means accepting arrest and punishment that highlights further the injustice involved. King went to jail at least 20 times for his convictions, using those occasions to think and write, emerging with more dignity than ever.
Many Americans still remember a time when segregation by race was enforced by law in parts of this country. The civil-rights movement turned a spotlight on that shame, carrying the moral high ground by clinging to nonviolence in the face of sometimes brutal suppression, and eventually leading the way to dismantling those laws.
Martin Luther King’s life is a testament to the power of ideas and words over injustice and oppression. If we want to change society in ways that further justice and freedom, it is important to learn, to think, to consider the possible consequences of our actions, to operate in accordance with the principles we develop and embrace.
Revolutions occur in peoples’ minds before they happen in the world. That reminder may be the most important aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.