Wed, Jan 19, 2000 - Page 8 News List

The lessons of Martin Luther King

By Stephen Yates

Monday, Jan. 17th marked the 15th celebration of the official Martin Luther King Jr national holiday in the US.

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Four days after his assassination on April 8, 1968, Congressman John Conyers introduced the first legislation calling for a federal holiday to honor the assassinated civil rights leader.

Fifteen years later, on Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill establishing the third Monday of January as the Martin Luther King Jr national holiday. The first official national observance of the holiday was Jan. 20, 1986.

Martin Luther King was perhaps the greatest civil rights leader in American history, though some may argue that the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln are more deserving of that title.

I believe King was an inspired man of God, brought forth to call the most powerful nation on Earth to repentance and to share his vision of a just future.

King is probably best known for his leading role in the 1963 March on Washington during which he uttered, from the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, the now immortal words "I have a dream!"

King was greatly blessed with the gift of speech and his words survive him well. More than 31 years after his tragic death we are urged to "keep the dream alive!"

Last December I was privileged to speak to the Taiwanese American Citizens League in Atlanta. I took advantage of my first visit to the city to go with my host to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

I was raised at a time of great awareness about the civil rights movement. My school curriculum was marked each February with the observance of Black History Month. So the exhibits at the King Memorial were a review for me, but a powerfully moving one.

For my host, it was a different story. He is Taiwanese and a long-time resident of Atlanta, but this was his first visit to the memorial and his first real exposure to the powerful messenger and message of Martin Luther King.

Our discussion that day revealed how relevant King's message was to democracy advocates in Taiwan and how relevant it is for those who hope for democracy in China.

King drew upon the wisdom of foreign leaders, especially Mohandas Gandhi, who established his country's freedom through nonviolent revolution.

So it is no surprise that King's teachings and actions would be of value to leaders beyond the US.

To demonstrate the point, I would like to review two passages from King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," written on April 16, 1963 (available at

"My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals."

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was `well timed,' according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words [sic] `Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This `Wait' has almost always meant `Never.' We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that `justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

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