MLK, Jr.: A Life On

US Embassy, New Delhi

The motto for MLK day events for the past few years has been, “A day on, not a day off.” But how do we get from “a day on” to “a life on”? Is activism everybody’s job?

Don’t get me wrong; I love the “A day on, not a day off” motto. I think this focus makes the memorial more fully reflect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of public service and activism. So, yes, let’s get out into our communities and do something to make today meaningful. Join in a march, volunteer, engage in dialogue, think carefully about the life circumstances of others and what your responsibility to your neighbor is. Today matters.

But there’s also tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after. And the day after.

This is what boggles my mind about a life like King’s. The sheer persistence of it, the ongoing engagement with the problems that others had merely accepted as part of the landscape of American experience. Whenever I’m tempted to hide behind phrases like, “I do what I can as a teacher/writer/mother,” I’m convicted by King’s example. He never stopped at being a pastor; he was all the time living out human obligations, obligations that went beyond his congregation, community, city, or even his race.

I’m proud of my efforts to advocate for minority students, for diversity in YA literature, for justice for young people without legal status. But these efforts, in the shadow of King’s legacy, seem very, very small.

Are certain people born with the capacity to effect broad changes, while others of us make adjustments in the margins? Or is it simply a matter of commitment? I’m still trying to understand.

Want to use MLK day to reflect on King’s legacy? For those of you with kids or just half an hour, check out this post where author Suzanne Slade discusses her recent picture book, “Climbing Lincoln’s Steps: The African American Journey.” Or if you really want to dig in, check out this review of Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years .


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