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.
Some time ago, I wrote a speech that I have never given and never will. I am often asked to give the MLK Day address at various functions. But I always decline. Every year on Dr. King's birthday, people cite the I Have a Dream speech. They reflect on the content of your character vs. the color of your skin and all the other pearls of wisdom in the speech. But then, when the inspirational and reflective moment passes, they resume doing what they've always done and nothing changes. That's what my speech was about.
If Dr. King were here today, I suspect he would care less about who was in the White House and more about what's going on in your house. So I'll never give my speech because MLK Day is an occasion for people to rekindle dreams — to serve the community, clean up parks, fix up libraries or work with seniors — not to watch those dreams drift idly by.
Dr. King might say that every day is a day to rekindle dreams because this is us at our best — being people of consequence, people who matter. The question to us is, "Do we still have a dream of being the best we can be, as people, as communities, as a nation?"
In I Have a Dream, Dr. King reminds us of the "fierce urgency of now." He says, "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
This speaks to the need for every citizen to stand up and create the America we dream of. We're not there yet, and it is the striving for perfection that, in many ways, makes us American. We have to get back to that striving. We have to put our houses in order. We have to keep moving. And we have to be our best selves in life — if we are to keep our dreams alive.
Chris Gardner is AARP’s Ambassador of Pursuit and Happyness. He is a best-selling author and the inspiration for the award-winning movie The Pursuit of Happyness.