It is hard to believe that it has only been 55 years since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famed “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
In it, King highlighted the concept of mutuality and how all of our fates are intertwined. He especially pointed out how it is up to us, as individuals, to affect change.
He wrote the piece from an Alabama jailhouse, several months prior to his historic march on Washington. Penned on a newspaper smuggled into his cell after he was imprisoned for participating in a nonviolent demonstration, the letter was a response to an op-ed written by local clergy about his nonviolence movement.
It’s one of his signature works, and through the years, it has resonated with me.
Of course, we’re often reminded of his epic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial to our nation and civil rights marchers gathered in Washington, D.C. This speech highlighted the country’s origins and founding fathers and the conditions of blacks in America, before concluding with his dream of equality. His speech became the catalyst that pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet there is so much more. As the child of a high school history teacher and active community volunteer, I was taught and learned about King’s most powerful books and speeches. We discussed his works like “Where Do We Go from Here?” ― written after the “I Have a Dream” speech ― and the “Great March to Freedom” ― a precursor to “I Have a Dream” speech.
But I remain captivated by the words he penned from that Birmingham jail cell. Its message of mutuality has had the most profound impact on me.
In our current reality, it is easy to forget that we are all inter-related – that the little things we do affect one another. We may not have the uncommon courage and conviction of character to be jailed fighting for equality for all, like King, but we can give back with our own personal acts of mutuality.
In 1983, Congress designated the third Monday in January as a federal holiday in honor of King’s birthday. We all enjoy this holiday today. Hopefully this year, some of us will honor King’s legacy by celebrating the day in service to our neighbors.
Each of us has the ability to give back by volunteering. It’s easy to say "maybe next year," but consider taking advantage of this holiday in your own local communities by volunteering. It doesn’t have to be a formal commitment, like volunteering at a local food bank or donating a car to a teacher ; even a small gesture counts. You could do something like spending time with a disabled loved one, or listening to an aging veteran who simply wants to share a story with a willing ear.
This year, on King’s birthday, make a resolution and empower yourself with an act of kindness. Strive to embody his message, and remember that whatever affects one directly has an impact on all. There are many local organizations that encourage you to try to make it a "day on, not a day off."
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