Happy Martin Luther King's Day! Of course, today is just the official celebration; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s actual birthday is January 15--same as my son! For the past several years, we've done some community service on this day, but we're kind of under the weather this year. So I guess my community service is passing on these two stories from recent articles that I think really speak to who Martin Luther King was as a leader and to the vision he had for our country.
The first is a tale told by Clarence B. Jones, Dr. King's friend, lawyer, and assistant speechwriter. The Washington Post printed a condensed version of the story behind King's most famous speech as explained in Jones' (with co-author Stuart Connelly) new book, Behind the Dream: The Making of he Speech That Transformed A Nation. According to Jones, King and his associates were so busy managing the logistics of the huge March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, scheduled for August 28, 1963, that they didn't even get to start working on the speech until the night before. Numerous different constituencies--civil rights groups, unions, academia, churches, and community organization--had all been collaborating in pulling this off, and each had ideas about what needed to be included in the speech. So Jones drafted a preliminary speech that tried to incorporate all those points of views, which MLK eventually took to his bedroom that night to work on and pray over.
The next day, the event seemed to be unfolding without a hitch--wonderful weather, well managed logistics, and no violent encounters as had been feared. All that remained was for Dr. King to put his personal capstone on the gathering. That epiphanal speech started out virtually as Jones had written it. But then that butterfly wing that changes the world happened. In this case, the butterfly was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, one of Dr. King's favorite singers and closest supporters who had performed earlier in the day. Jackson spontaneously called out, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em about the dream." And Dr. King, inspired by her comment, put aside his prepared speech, and spoke to this massive crowd off the cuff, from his heart, and repeating what are some of the most famous words of the 1960's, if not of the entire century--I have a dream.
It was a brilliant performance by a brilliant speaker, and it delivered exactly the message that the crowd--and, really, the world--needed to hear at that time. But it shows what courage, what confidence, and what faith the man had--and the risks he was willing to take to listen to what his heart, and not his head, told him to do. The religious, of course, believe he was taken over by spirit. But even if you don't believe in a spiritual power, you have to believe that he was completely in touch with, and totally surrendered to, the needs of the people at that moment in time.
The speech is a marvel, regardless of where it came from or by whom or how it was written (you can read or listen to the speech at the American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches website). But I think this story demonstrates his other leadership qualities besides just his suburb speaking ability.
The second story is more of an anecdote told by actress Nichelle Nichols, the African American woman who played the TV barrier-busting role of Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series. In an article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nichols confessed that after the first year of the show, she planned to leave to pursue her personal ambitious to perform on Broadway. However, the weekend after she had told the show's create, Gene Roddenberry, about her desire to quit, she attended an NAACP fundraiser where she met Dr. King, who informed her that he was "the biggest Trekkie on the planet." Dr. King waxed eloquently about Nichols' role on the show--her grace, dignity, strength, and character. So when Nichols admitted that she was leaving the show, Dr. King told her she couldn't. He convinced her that Star Wars was giving people a picture of the kind of future society he was trying to describe in his speeches (such as the "I Have A Dream" speech). Black, white, Asian, and Alien men and women working together where competence, rather than color, culture, or country, mattered--that was something that the American people needed to see at that time.
And like King himself at that tremendous rally, Nichols surrendered to the moment. If Dr. King thought it was that important for her to continue doing the show, then she decided to turn aside her personal desires and commit herself to the role for as long as it took. Between the TV show and the Star Trek movies, Nichols never really realized her goal of singing and dancing in Broadway musicals. Yet she says that, looking back, she doesn't regret a moment of it. And the scores of people, particularly black women, who looked up to her as role models as they were growing up (including Whoopi Goldberg and the first African-American female astronaut, Dr. Mae Jeminson) are glad that she didn't.
I love both these stories about Dr. King because they show a man who not only got the big things right--like the plans and speech for the March on Washington--but also the little ones....hearing the wisdom in a random statement, or seeing the possibility in a (then) little known television show.
These are great stories to teach our children how a great leader works--no matter what his or her gender, background, race, country, or political or religious persuasion.