What I find most remarkable about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is his vision. This champion of social equality and economic parity possessed an unparalleled penchant for timeless, incisive, inspirational prose. More than anyone, Dr. King elevated our discussions of race beyond parochial concerns to universal principles and precepts. Only when we recognize the human dignity of each and every person on the face of the earth, he argued, will we recognize the full extent of our own personal potential. That is, quite simply, both poetic and profound.
One of Dr. King’s quotes has particular resonance today: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Too often we lose faith in the continuing struggle for equality when progress creeps rather than sprints. We grow impatient as we repeatedly take one step forward, then two back. We get frustrated when old battles must be fought on new turf. Yet, we may take comfort in Dr. King’s words. We may rest assured that if we are vigilant, progress is not only possible, but also inevitable. We must be the catalysts, but the moral order of the universe is our ally.
An assassin’s bullet prematurely ended Dr. King’s life in 1968 at age 39. Since that time, we have made progress in race relations that is both significant and real.
That said, there is no question that we have miles to go before we sleep. Indeed, in terms of race matters—more broadly, diversity matters—we can never afford to sleep. Chronic challenges require unerring vigilance. It is nonetheless critical that we acknowledge our progress as we recruit new allies in our quest for more of the same—faster, more institutionalized, and more permanent.
It is, after all, our shared humanity that connects us. Ultimately, all the ways in which we may differ—as important as they are to our own individual and group identities—pale in comparison to all that we share. We can simultaneously celebrate our rich diversity as we together seek common ground.
The challenges we face require both personal and collective courage. The Hebrew phrases tikkun hanefesh(healing the soul) and tikkun olam (healing the world) capture these two dimensions beautifully. Our individual work and our collective work await us. Dr. King would expect us to meet the challenge head-on and arm-in-arm.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, college professor, and consultant. He specializes in diversity issues. His books include: Black Wall Street–From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District; Up From the Ashes—A Story About Community; Acres of Aspiration—The All-Black Towns in Oklahoma; Mama Used To Say—Wit & Wisdom From The Heart & Soul; No Place Like Home—A Story About an All-Black, All-American Town; and IncogNegro—Poetic Reflections on Race & Diversity in America.