“May we all remember that the time and the place of a man’s life on earth are the time and the place of his body, but the meaning of his life is as vast, as creative, and as redemptive as his gifts, his times, and the passionate commitment of all his powers can make it.”—Howard Thurman, April 4, 1968, With Head and Heart
Howard Thurman, who served as a dean of chapel at Boston University, brought these words to the printed page from the depths of his own spirit and experiences to acknowledge the enormity of the tragically shortened yet well-lived life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now, nearly 54 years since Dr. King’s assassination (re)ignited a national reckoning, it is the “meaning” of his life that perhaps rings loudest of all the contributions, sacrifices, street namings, monuments, and books—the externalities—that seek to define and memorialize him. What exactly is that meaning? This is no easy question to answer, and its responses are likely to reveal both intertwined complexities and the contexts of respondents’ personal histories.
So, as I grow older and read and reflect—presumably more carefully and critically—about Dr. King’s legacy, I am increasingly drawn to how attached he was to listening to what Thurman called “the sound of the genuine,” that inner voice or North Star that sometimes helps human beings to identify their spiritual moorings and personal direction.
Some call it conscience. Others may refer to it in theological terms as God. Essentially, for Dr. King, it was a spiritual calling, vocare, or summons, in his own words, “to do God’s will” with his “time on earth.” Thus, for him, doing God’s will translated into utilizing the blessings of his education, familial inheritance, and experiences as a young Black man in America to dare to imagine a nation and world in which the beloved community could be realized (and sustained); and if harsh, seemingly entrenched barriers were erected or persisted, the sacred task of working towards brighter and more promising futures for subsequent generations should not be abandoned.
I suspect, therefore, that Dr. King’s toughest battles may have been fought not against raging hecklers and frightened lawmakers who felt he and the civil rights movement were misguided, moving too fast, or drifting outside their so-called assigned lane. His toughest challenge was likely found in creating sufficient space and opportunities amid a grueling schedule to shut out the noises and distractions from well-intended skeptics and murderous haters long enough so he could commune with the “sound of the genuine” in the privacy of his thoughts and prayers.
It is in this regard that Dr. King’s life and legacy, perhaps, seem most accessible if not crucial for all of us in 2022. Abraham Heschel, a towering prophetic voice and contemporary of Dr. King’s, once remarked that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Those of us among the living who may not be guilty of directing acts that strangle life from others are nonetheless accountable for searching and for identifying our callings, and then finding the resolve and fortitude to act on what we discover.
For me, this is at least one of the meanings of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
John P. Brown, Jr.
Practitioner in Residence in Religion, Business Ethics, and the Economic Order
Harvard Divinity School
January 14, 2022