Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Through Meaningful Allyship

Written by on January 17, 2016 in Sense of Purpose

Martin Luther King Jr.

What does Martin Luther King Jr. Day mean to you? For most of us, especially those of us who are white, it’s little more than a day off from work commemorating the birthday of a man we really know little about. We’ve learned bits and pieces about his legacy over the years, but for the most part remain detached from the man or his impact on the civil rights movement.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ~Martin Luther King Jr.

For example did you know that in America in 1994 Congress designated the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday as a national day of service, and to this day it remains the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off.”

This sounds like a great idea but it seemed to me that, other than acknowledging Dr. King’s focus on helping others, there’s little connecting it with any meaning to his mission to improve the lives of black Americans. And then I came across this …

“White folks: use this [holiday] as an opportunity to work on your allyship. What is “Allyship”? Offer Resources, Platform, Sustainable Communication … and then, get out of the way.”

Now THIS made sense to me, even if it was a little embarrassing that this thump to the head came in the form of a tweet, but hey, whatever it takes!

So the question is how can we be effective allies?

We can begin by understanding that to be meaningful allyship is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability, and I would add for all races and cultures, but that’s another article. In the meantime, here are just a few ways in which we can begin by honoring Dr. King’s legacy.

Participate in Martin Luther King Day of Service

Visit here for a comprehensive database of hundreds of registered Martin Luther King Day volunteer opportunities across America. To make your efforts more meaningful, volunteer in a way that gives back to the black community directly.

Learn About the Man

The truth is many of us know little about Martin Luther King Jr. and what we do know has almost always been filtered to focus on certain parts of his character we find appealing, in particular, his virtue of nonviolence, so one thing we can do is to take the time to read books by and about Dr. King.Martin Luther King 

There are surprisingly few considering the man’s contribution, but I can personally recommend The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (affiliate link). It’s an extremely well-written book by Clayborne Carson, a historian teaching at Stanford University, and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.

Participate in Conversations About Racial Justice

Please try to keep in mind that if these conversations make you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good thing, because it’s only by making peace with discomfort that we can grow. The point is to base our understanding of the challenges and issues on more than headlines in the news.

Well, it only seems appropriate that we should hear from Dr. King himself at this point. I appreciate the Internet will be overflowing with his quotations for the next couple of days, so I’ve selected a few lesser known insights, particularly those that address taking meaningful action. Let me know what you think.

In the Words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • When I hear “People aren’t ready” I feel it’s like telling a person who is trying to swim “Don’t jump in that water until you learn how to swim.”, when actually you will never learn how to swim until you get in the water.
  • The reason I can’t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind.
  • When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that he suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast with a scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.
  • Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.
  • True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.
  • Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.
  • Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.
  • People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.
  • When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it is your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well. (I LOVE this!)
  • If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.

It’s worth noting, especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that while we must acknowledge that racism still exists today, we shouldn’t discount the justice movements of the past by saying they were unsuccessful. These movements, in fact, were highly successful, chipping away at a large issue that often feels overwhelming. But there is still a LOT of work to be done.

Even those who are reluctant to be on the front lines can help by learning more, by participating in meaningful conversations and by getting serious about all the ways we can boost our collective allyship.

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.

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  1. Roslyn Tanner Evans

    I was moved to tears reading your piece for many reasons, namely how much I step over or don’t know. I was moved to tears reading all the comments and want to leave one that may be different. Well, I can’t because all of us are touched by our shameful past, our history and the actions & words of this amazing man.
    Most of us have little notion of what it takes to take a stand, to be self-generating against the tide. You do and put a lot of thought into your words.
    I just have a feeling that in future years, our actions and writings on his birthday will be stronger, less plugged into the common. I searched for a less known quote and created a FB post of: “The reason I can’t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind.”

    • I’m so glad you found value in my article Roslyn! I sincerely hope you are right about the direction we are heading. As I’ve mentioned in earlier comments, I understand how overwhelming feel when we focus on the BIG picture, but I just keep coming back to “What can I do?” and that helps to keep me focused. I’m going to look for your post Roslyn, and thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!

  2. Suzie Cheel

    I take this on board this: Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become. That speaks to me today. Thank you for sharing the quotes and making me more aware of the gift he was to the world and still is Love suzie
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…How To Do A 12 Month Oracle Card ReadingMy Profile

  3. If we look at the essence of what we humans are here in this world to do, it is to be of service to others. This is the keynote of Martin Luther King’s message to all people. I shared an incredible video on his birthday, which I am leaving the link here for you to have the opportunity to see. It is a cover of James Taylor’s classic song, “Shed a Little Light”, performed by an orthodox Jewish a cappella group and a black a cappella group, on the steps of the Lincoln memorial where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Once you watch it, hopefully you’ll see why I shared it with you and why I believe it speaks volumes to the message you share in your post, Marquita. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crKDDS5D_os
    Here’s another post I think has a lot of merit…8 important lessons, other than race, that Martin Luther King stood for. http://www.care2.com/causes/beyond-race-8-other-important-lessons-from-dr-martin-luther-king-jr.html Hope you enjoy these as well, as I found them both very powerful and important to contributing to keep his “dream” alive and in the cultural conversation.
    Beverley Golden recently posted…The Power of Pets to Heal UsMy Profile

  4. Sue Kearney

    “I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

    Legacy. Defined. In the highest and most meaningful way.

    Thanks for compiling and for teaching me about the day of service.
    Sue Kearney recently posted…Upleveling is happening. Gulp.My Profile

  5. I love his “What are you doing for others?” question. It is a spot on approach to life that I wish I lived every day.
    Most excellent overview on Mr. King. I think we need, and are sadly lacking, more leaders like him.
    Rose M Griffith recently posted…Hawaiian Hiking – Part 2 – Hawaii “The Big Island”My Profile

  6. W.A. Rusho

    What a great post. I know sometimes we forget what holidays are, such as veteran’s day, memorial and labor day etc. I sometimes think it is the word holiday, it natural makes us think of celebration, instead of reflection.
    Let us hope in that Martin Luther King Jr. will not be forgotten.
    Thank you for sharing this with us.
    W.A. Rusho recently posted…To be Free in the Middle Ages, or, How Little Rights Can Mean a Lot.My Profile

  7. Marquita — such an inspiring post. It’s unfortunate, but there are a lot of companies that don’t give their employees the day off on Martin Luther King Day, even though it’s a national “holiday.” Every time I see a clip of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Mountain” speech it brings tears to my eyes. There is still so much hatred in the world. It’s so painful to read the stories of the Syrians who are trapped without food and are dying every day. Where is the rest of the world? Why aren’t we flying airplanes over them and dropping food supplies? Thanks for giving me a lot to think about.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…8 Myths About Employee EngagementMy Profile

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Jeannette, and I certainly hear and appreciate your frustration over the refugee situation. Sadly, more often than not, old men in high places throw up obstacles that prevent people in need from receiving the help they need. To be honest, what is even sadder to me is the wide spread fear and hatred aimed at refugees because as we’ve seen in the past when people come together they can exert enough pressure to make things happen. But as long as the country is so divided over the issue of immigration I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the meantime, all we can do is lend whatever help we can individually and have the courage to speak up when the opportunity arises. Thank you SO much for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the conversation. Always appreciated!

  8. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    I really like how you’ve focused in on Martin Luther King, Jr. today.

    My greatest impressions of this great man was that he always built bridges. He was always ready to work with people, even his enemies, to effect positive change for everyone.

    Donna Merrill recently posted…How Blogging Communities Build Site TrafficMy Profile

    • Wonderful insight Donna, you are so right about Dr. King’s focus on building bridges. Surely something we could use more of in these turbulent times. Glad to see you up and about and hope you’re feeling better!

  9. Stella Chiu

    Hi, Marquita

    These are great collections of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. Some of them I did not hear of them before. Greatly appreciate your effort to collect them for us.
    I particularly love this one “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
    Fear does form a huge wall between individuals. It is sad and pitiful but is true.

    I am glad you ended your post to remind us that his movement was successful even the racism still exists. There are still many works needed to be done in that area.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Stella Chiu
    Stella Chiu recently posted…10 Keys to the Success of your 2016 New Year ResolutionMy Profile

  10. Ken Dowell

    This is a terrific post to refocus us on what Martin Luther King meant to this country and to all of us. There seems to be no end to the MLK quotes that are brilliantly insightful and yet so simple at the same time. Comments that seem so obvious but yet never occurred to me until he phrased it the way he did.

    • Thank you Ken, I’m glad you found value in the article. I must admit the process of preparing this post was particularly worthwhile because I took a good deal of time refreshing my memory of Dr. King and searching for his lesser known quotations. He surely was a brilliant man and I hope one day we can manage somehow to see his dream come true.

  11. Jeri Walker

    It bugged me to no end that when I was in the classroom MLK Jr. day was always used for a teacher inservice day. It wasn’t done in the name of serving others though. It just seemed like the school board didn’t value it as a day worthy of remembrance and celebration. I didn’t really start to hone in on King’s message until I had to teach Letter from Birmingham Jail to my creative writing students. His rhetoric is so masterful as to make a person weep at its eloquence.

    • I hear and agree with your frustration Jeri! When I was a kid my family drove across country every summer and one year we visited cousins in the deep south. The town where they lived was like stepping back in time with the railroad tracks literally cutting the town in half – whites on one side of the tracks and blacks on the other. I was too young to understand the “why” of it, but I’ve always been a curious brat and so kept asking a lot of questions that got plenty of huffs but no answers. One day I was in town with my aunt and wandered off to explore and found myself standing in front of an ancient service station with a scarred and dirty sign dangling from a water fountain – Whites Only. Next thing I know I got a hardy slap to the back of my head as my aunt yanked me away from there yelling at me the whole time. I remember being so confused and no one would answer my questions. Growing up in a very white world in suburban California it was a lesson that would take years for the significance to sink in but obviously that image and the message behind it is something that has remained with me all this time.

  12. Mark

    Leave it to to you M! Those are such wonderful quotes!

    And I’m so glad to state, 80% of which, I had not heard previously!

    But I love the passage, where he advised us to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change!

    That particular passage, offers so much flexibility and room for personal interpretation and implementation!

    And it’s just a great perspective to have, in order to move ahead in life, in general!

    Thanks for sharing some wonderful thoughts M!

    my oh my, but you’ve got such a way with words!LOL!
    Mark recently posted…How A Really Simple Marketing Twist Helps Savvy Small Business Owners Pocket 25% More Gross Profit!My Profile

    • Thank you Mark, your kind words mean a lot to me! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and hope that others will take the time to at least think about Dr. King’s words. We’re all in different places and positions in our lives, but even if we can’t make a big difference we can each do our part to open ourselves to compassion and meaningful conversations.

  13. Dave

    As always seems to be the case Marty, your articles enlighten me from a standpoint of knowledge and inspiration. I will be the first to admit that I probably don’t know enough about the man behind the movement, and I appreciate your recommendations for discovering more of the influence this courageous man has had on the world as we know it today.

    Thanks for having the courage to bring this important topic front and center. It’s not always easy to do so, but it is the right thing to do if we are going to continue developing as a unified society of human beings.
    Dave recently posted…TQT #1My Profile

    • I’m glad you found inspiration in the post Dave. I must admit I struggled a bit with this article for two reasons, the first having to do with the current climate in our country – heck, in the world – but in the end I refocused on the man. I write about resilience and there is no question that Martin Luther King Jr. serves as a exemplary example of that characteristic. The other thing is the reality that while I live in a highly diverse area, there are few black Americans here so it’s kind of tough to find a way to “walk the talk” on the home front. But I’ve been involved in supporting the Hawaiian community since I moved here so I feel good about that, and I’ve decided to use this article as a personal challenge to find a way to do my part to encourage meaningful conversations about diversity – regardless of the race or culture. Should make for an interesting follow up article this time next year, huh?

  14. Donna Janke

    These are great Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. So much wisdom in his words. I particularly like the one about walking the earth as brothers and sisters and true compassion being more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It is so important to work for a world where we no longer fear each other.

    • Glad you liked the quotations Donna. That one about throwing a coin to a beggar is one that particularly hits home to me. Having chaired 3 county food drives I’ve seen firsthand what it takes to make a difference in a community and how something as simple as making eye contact and sharing a simple smile and word of encouragement can touch someone’s heart and lift their spirits.

  15. lenie

    Marquita, you have written about a man I have admired for many years and I have read a lot about him, his family and his mission. He was an amazing man to who all Americans, not just the Blacks owe a lot. He raised awareness in the whites of all the things that were wrong.
    We watch the news every night and see all the racial tensions now happening and I keep thinking please don’t let this brave man’s work be for nothing. His saying “”True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
    The other quote “We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”
    Thank you for this inspiring post – it is truly timely.
    Have a wonderful Martin Luther King day and I think it would be interesting to hear how people have participated in Martin Luther King’s Day of Service.

    • Good for you Lenie and I’m so glad you found value in the article. I found the quote about justice to be particularly timely which is why I highlighted it. And I know what you mean about protecting his legacy. This is why I think it’s never been more important to open ourselves to conversations rather than relying on the headlines in the news. Of course I’ll be the first to admit for many of us this is easier said that done because right now there’s a lot of tension and anger out there. But we have to start somewhere and I believe people in communities across America is the key rather than sitting back and waiting for government to step in and create meaningful change. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!

  16. Catarina says:

    Martin Luther King Jr. was right. Isn’t it sad that racism is still so rife in the world. Not just in the US but in the rest of the world as well. The most intelligent person I have never met is African. Just a small percentage of mankind are as brilliant as he it. With the logic of racists he should have been caucasian.
    Catarina recently posted…Will more investors opt for impact investment?My Profile

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Catarina, and of course I agree with you about the cockeyed logic of most racists as well as state of the world right now. It is so frustrating to see so many suffer and the overt prejudice, and I especially hate the way certain people are using their celebrity status to further inflame racial tension for their own personal gain. Of course on the other side of that coin I am a passionate advocate for free speech and that means taking the good with the ridiculous I’m afraid. Each day I keep pulling myself back to one question, “What can I do?” because otherwise it’s too easy to just throw up my hands and give up.

  17. Phoenicia

    Excellent post!

    Martin Luther King was all about injustice. He had a vision of how he felt the world should be. He did not see a change in his lifetime but nyhrh

    I agree that discussing race issues can be uncomfortable (for some) but racism is still rife in our society and people suffer every day as a result. Those people who suffer struggle with feelings of anger and resentment.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Multitasking: The good and the not so good!My Profile

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the conversation Phoenicia. The truth is I think we’ve gone a bit beyond the “discomfort” level when it comes to discussing racism. What we have to keep in mind is that – regardless of the subject – most people go out of their way to keep from dealing with confrontation. When you take that very real core fear and factor in the anger and frustration many black Americans are feeling right now, that puts up a pretty big obstacle for most people to deal with no matter how good their intentions may be. If we focus on the headlines, right now most of the energy is being focused on the “establishment” when I personally think if we want to create meaningful change it’s going to have to begin on the community level. We have to stop being afraid of talking to each other.

  18. Erica says:

    I went to the movies one Martin Luther King day as a kid when the movie Malcolm X was in the theaters. I remember that everyone who was under 21 years old could get into the movie on that day for free. Looking back, things like that are such a wonderful idea. It really is the young people who are the future of race relations in our country. I feel that there needs to be more emphasis on learning appreciation and tolerance for others in our younger years. I went to a Quaker school (I’m not Quaker but grew up in Philly were the Quakers settled) and there was so much emphasis in our education in understanding others and appreciating differences. We had actual classes dedicated to volunteering and we took entire days off from classes to give back to the community. I benefited so much from that, and I think Martin Luther King day is a great opportunity to spread lessons of understanding to the next generation. And that can translate not just to blacks, but to any other person someone deems to be different.

    Thanks for all the great ideas to make Martin Luther King day have value for everyone.

    • Wonderful ideas Erica! And I couldn’t agree more with you about the importance of setting the example for our children. I grew up in an environment so racist that I’d be embarrassed to even share some of the stories. How I managed to evolve with such a different view of the world and my fellow man adds fuel to the stories me sister used to weave about my being adopted! Thanks for sharing and contributing to the conversation my friend!

  19. Sabrina Quairoli

    I do agree that Martin Luther King Day of Service is important. I also feel that we should be of service to everyone everyday not just on this day. Have a great Martin Luther King Day.

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