Martin Luther King Jr. did not have a long life.
The very next night after those prophetic words were spoken to a crowd supporting Memphis’ striking black garbage workers, King was shot down as he stood on a motel balcony.
He was only 39.
Had he lived, King would have been 85 this month as the nation commemorates the anniversary of his birth. And, by now, he would have observed five decades of America’s progress — or lack thereof — since his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
In observing the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday Monday, there will be the usual parades, speeches and recitations of the most famous lines delivered by the civil rights leader at the “March on Washington.”
While it is important to remember those words, it’s more fitting that we remember words before and beyond the “dream” speech in which King was known to put out an urgent call to service, to Americans of every color and creed and, indeed, to all humanity. It also is worthy to note that King backed up those words through his deeds.
Exactly two months before he was assassinated, King had talked about what he wanted people to say at his funeral, noting he did not want the eulogist to mention his Nobel Peace Prize or “three or four hundred other awards.” Instead, he said:
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. … I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry … to clothe those who were naked … visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
It’s hard to believe that King’s entire civil rights career lasted only 13 years, from 1955, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, to that fateful night in Memphis where he had taken a detour from his planned campaign for a poor people’s demonstration in Washington.
As early as 1957, before the Supreme Court declared that the segregation of Montgomery’s buses was unconstitutional, King was imploring us to reach out to our fellow human beings.
“An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity,” he said in a sermon at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. “Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in [the] light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?’ ”
It is that question, the recurring theme of what is now labeled a national day of service, that those who honor King should be asking.
On Monday tens of thousands of people all over the country will go to community centers, homeless shelters, nursing homes and other places to touch individual lives. Some will decide simply to help a nearby neighbor in need.
Doing service to others is the true spirit of what the King holiday should be about.