President Pastides with students on MLK Day of Service

Serving Others in the Legacy of Dr. King

On the evening of April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King told an assembled crowd in Memphis, Tennessee that he was not afraid to die because “I’ve been to the Mountaintop…and I’ve seen the Promised Land.” Less than twenty-four hours later, he was assassinated on the balcony of the city’s Lorraine Motel. 

While the foretelling finale of Dr. King’s speech might be most remembered in history, it’s the address’s broader, yet, lesser known, message that cuts right to the heart of rising social unrest in a divided city and nation. Dr. King railed against economic disparity; he called out for greater communal collectiveness; and he championed a sense of hope that even in the darkest of storms, the brightest of stars would shine through. However, despite this armed optimism, Dr. King foresaw dangerous storms on the horizon, telling those assembled, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.”

A half century later, difficult days still abound, as our current climate bears parallels to those challenging times. We are still a divided nation, politically, economically and socially. And we continue to carry the weight of entanglements abroad and injustices at home.   

I recently revisited Dr. King’s speech in light of these parallels. What resonates most, especially on our national holiday of service in his honor, is Dr. King’s reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and for putting the needs of others above your own. Dr. King described this trait as “dangerous unselfishness,” and its premise helped drive the civil rights movement and lead him to Memphis in support of the city’s sanitation workers strike. 

To meet this ideal, Dr. King, along with men and women of courage like him, would simply ask, “What will happen to them if I don’t?” The world recently lost one of those inspired trailblazers, Dr. Willie Lloyd Harriford Jr., who among many notable accomplishments during a life of service, helped establish the now King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and served as the first African-American administrator and director of African-American Studies at the University of South Carolina. 

Moreover, in rediscovering Dr. King’s stirring and prophetic prose and in watching the audible force of his conviction, I can’t help but think that his message was not only intended to reverberate across the picket lines in Memphis, but also to echo throughout the ages and into our consciousness today. 

So, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday and of our national holiday of service, it is up to us to cultivate a “dangerous unselfishness” within our lives and within our communities. It is up to us to stand up to injustice and to ask what will happen to our friend, neighbor or co-worker if we don’t help them in their moment of need. 

Because, in the end, what does it say about us as people, and as a nation, if we don’t? 

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