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MLK's Legacy Teaches Us Self-Sacrifice Is Necessary for the Unity of All

Jessica Johnson on

If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song,

If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

"If I Can Help Somebody" was one of the old songs that I grew up listening to the elders sing in church. One of the reasons these lyrics were so beloved is that gospel legend Mahalia Jackson belted them out with her entire heart and soul. The elders in my church were from a generation that had survived the Great Depression and the latter part of the Jim Crow era, so they firmly believed it was their duty to God to be their brother's keeper.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also ended his April 3, 1968, address at Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis with these lyrics. In this message, King heavily emphasized to the congregation that there was always going to be a tussle between good and evil when one sets out to build what he called a "creative temple." "I don't care who you are, I don't care where you live, there is a civil war going on in your life," King said. "And every time you set out to be good, there's something pulling on you, telling you to be evil ... Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate."

This would be a profound message to explore as we celebrate King's legacy this year. Hundreds of MLK Day events across the nation focus on volunteering and community service, which is great, but King would also remind us to take a serious look at our inner selves, primarily what's truly in our hearts. And when it comes to serving others, King would definitely reference 1 Corinthians 13:3 today, which teaches us if we do not genuinely have the love of God that doing good deeds profits us nothing, even if we feed the poor or make the ultimate sacrifice of our lives for a noble cause.

In addition to discussing life's spiritual tug of war between good and evil that we all experience in this Memphis sermon, King also mentioned the unrest in the country during 1968, saying, "the nation is sick; trouble is in the land, confusion all around." He was specifically referring to the treatment of the Black sanitation workers in Memphis who had gone on strike to protest horrible working conditions and poor pay.

As 2022 is underway, this same statement could be made in a slightly different context. Millions in the nation are physically sick due to COVID-19, and trouble continually abounds due to the impact of the pandemic, most notably the current concerns of rising inflation resulting in higher gas and grocery costs.

 

Another present issue that would disturb King is the struggle to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 updated, a crowning achievement of the civil rights era under his leadership. It has been a fight much like the one 57 years ago to continue protecting registered voters who are unduly harmed by laws in states with a history of voting discrimination. The updated bill, which has been named the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, was passed in the House last August and is awaiting the vote in the Senate.

Debate has continued since 2019 on another voting bill called the Freedom to Vote Act, which would mandate a core set of guidelines for federal elections to ensure more people have access to polling locations. King would view this ongoing voting rights battle as one that we have "(grappled) with through history."

Perhaps the most insightful statement that King made toward the end of his Mason Temple address was his call for those in attendance to have a "dangerous unselfishness" to support the sanitation workers on strike. I believe King also said this because he knew the nation was going to have get to a point of unselfishness to move toward the unity he envisioned for all people. He left a great blueprint of self-sacrifice for us to follow, to help somebody as we pass along.

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Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 

 

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