My devotion to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. goes back almost as far as my memory goes.
When I was 6 years of age, my mother dressed me in a gray plaid suit, white shirt and black tie. My shoes were round and shiny. And I went before my school and church to recite a good portion of "I Have a Dream." I knew he was great. But I did not (and could not) fully comprehend. Over my life, there have been three specific instances where I spent time in deep, meditative reflection over his words and legacy.
The first real time was in early 1999. It was the second-half of my junior year in high school. I spent a lot of time oscillating between school, the library, and home in an effort to focus intensively on improving my grades. "Distractions" from my homework came more and more in the form of books and writing.
While surfing the Internet in the library one day, I came across Clayborne Carson's efforts at Stanford to assemble the essential writing and speeches of MLK in one place. This was music to my soul. I now had access to one place to cull through primary sources and to hear from King directly on various issues. Around the same time, while at a friend's house in Brooklyn I noticed a book with J. Edgar Hoover and MLK on the cover. I was embarrassingly naive up to that point about the excruciatingly tortuous dance between the federal law enforcement and MLK throughout the 1960s. What struck me constantly during this period of reflection was MLK's prolific, sustained brilliance through rhetoric.
It was the first time I viewed King as an organic intellectual -- an individual seeking to elevate discourse on certain issues arising organically out of the immediate conditions of the society that they are born into. What should not be underestimated about King is that he was not an isolated figure of his time with his words and beliefs. He was a part of a tradition -- the Black Christian prophetic tradition. He was influenced by Dr. Benjamin Mays. He listened to the speeches of Dr. Mordecai Johnson. He constantly read and re-read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. And he grew up in the dignity of the church spearheaded by his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. From this foundation, he incorporated Gandhi, Rauschenbush, Niebuhr and Thoreau to fortify his social philosophy and his theories as an intellectual.
The second period of my life where I've spent extensive time reflecting on MLK was in 2008. I was gifted with a great book, an exhaustive collection of the essays, sermons, interviews, speeches and books of King. What really stuck with me during this time were the common streams that persistently appeared in his output through various types of media for over a decade. They included (1) his commitment to nonviolence not only as a tool for the civil rights movement, but as a way of living a full life; (2) his devotion to ensuring he was following the will of God; and (3) his focus on constitutional changes to local, state and national laws as a fundamental measuring stick of nonviolent mobilization efforts. It is hard to overstate how these three themes guided his life.
The third period initially occurred five years later and is still continuing. In 2013, I was living in Lusaka, Zambia, working to help deliver basic financial services to working-class entrepreneurs across that country. My mind constantly sought answers to questions related to financial inclusion for the unbanked and economic justice generally. King's words have continued to illuminate my path. In preparing for what would turn out to be his last devoted action, supporting sanitation workers in Memphis to help them receive fairer wages, King also put together an "Economic and Social Bill of Rights" proposal that demanded, for example, access to meaningful jobs, a guaranteed livable income, and low-cost, affordable housing en masse.
King wanted a Marshall Plan for low-income communities around the country. And he was willing to use the sword and shield of nonviolent protest to achieve this goal. During his last speech in Memphis, it is clear that King was pushing to activate militant nonviolent action in the form of economic withdrawal to achieve fair wages, employment and housing. He stressed that the strong collective purchasing power parity of the African-American community could be used as a weapon to simultaneously demand economic justice and support Black institutions.
King continues to inform my life. His message is for everyone to hear -- believers in nonviolence, totalitarians, war hawks, capitalists, democratic socialists, Christians, Muslims and agnostics. His words excite, challenge, illuminate, enlighten and sustain. I am who I am because he was who he was. I know that many feel the exact same way. Long live King Martin.