What can we be in life? Few figures in history have answered this question with as much clarity and moral authority as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His words and deeds cultivated belief in the idea that every single person has power. For African Americans and anyone else who had believed the exact opposite for so long, this was exhilarating. Imagine suddenly thinking you could be or do anything. Opening that pathway to possibility was Dr. King's enduring gift.
See also: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.
The first time I saw Dr. King on television, he was talking about excelling, about being the best. You might be a garbage man, he implied, but be the best garbage man, be a world class garbage man. That's how a kid like me began to understand that I could be or do anything in life. That's how a kid like me decided, "I'm going to be Miles Davis." Eventually, of course, I learned, I refined and I figured out that I had to be me. I couldn't be Miles.
King's universal relevance is partly what makes the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., such a singular occasion. It is the first memorial on the National Mall to honor a man of color and the only one that does not commemorate a president or a war. It is a memorial celebrating the timeless themes of justice, democracy and hope — a memorial that will forever challenge us to be our best selves.
Dr. King's life was about living in the moral moment and moving people to action. For him, rights were more than assumed; that meant that people had to defend and fight for their rights from time to time. For him, this is what animated the American story. He knew that America was hatched by radicals who declared equality among all people. And he believed that loving and serving humanity, his purpose on Earth, was the kind of radical notion America needed.
These ideas found their fullest expression in Dr. King's iconic I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. Passages in this speech still shape the lives and destinies of people everywhere. This is because the dream exhorts us to be our best.