Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

History remembers Martin Luther King Jr. as a great man because he spent much of his life doing good for others.

It is that spirit of service which our nation honors today with celebrations of King’s words, work and life.

Local observances include a volunteer day of service in King’s name organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Creighton University is hosting a talk with Fred Gray, an Alabama civil rights attorney who defended Rosa Parks’ right to sit where she pleased on an Alabama bus.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, together with the Lincoln Public Schools, is organizing a local youth march in King’s honor.

King, a pastor in Alabama and Georgia, spent the late 1950s and 1960s organizing protests against institutional racism.

Despite his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King’s ideas endure, particularly his emphasis on the need to stand up to injustice everywhere.

From the Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

King emphasized the power of nonviolent protest to focus the American public on the unfair treatment of African-Americans. His grassroots, faith-inspired movement pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation. This organized effort soon spurred passage of the Voting Rights Act, which reduced legal barriers to voting for African-Americans.

King also recognized the importance of addressing economic conditions and improving public education and job opportunities.

He understood that, to be effective, his movement had to put a face on human suffering. He wrote repeatedly about the difficulty of shocking moderate whites with the offensive treatment that many African-Americans faced.

The temptation for moderates to ignore injustice and to prefer order was difficult for King and others to overcome.

King’s dream lives on long after he spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His dream of equal opportunity. Of hope. Of justice.

This month, teachers are reminding students of King’s call for personal action. Of his call for doing all we can to change what is to what could be. It’s a message for us all.

Too many children are still living in poverty. Yet there are also clearer ways that people can help.

Literacy programs need teachers.

Mentoring programs need volunteers.

Schools need parent and community involvement.

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday should not be a one-day opportunity to serve in our community, but the beginning of a lifetime of service.

As King said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize: “I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

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