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Doing Good Together: Create a living memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in our actions

by James Puglisi
Special to the American-Statesman
In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

“Make a career of humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle of equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Each January on his birthday, we commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.  We each are drawn to remember the day for different reasons. Perhaps it was his oratory power, or the movement he promoted, or the substance of his humanity, or perhaps it is a three-day weekend for some. Regardless, it will be different this year given the timing right before a presidential inauguration, and the disruptions that have been part of our lived experiences this year. We do not live in static times for sure.

I visited the memorial to King in Washington, D.C., two years ago while attending a “faith and justice” conference. Like many memorials in Washington, there is a felt sense of reverence as you enter into the space. Time stands still in the moment.

James Puglisi is a professional with 25-plus years in the field of training, committed to building equity, diversity, and inclusion, through fostering dialogue and community building.

I love memorials. Perhaps it comes from numerous childhood vacation trips that focused more on historical excursions rather than trips to the beach. Or perhaps, as a Roman Catholic, I am accustomed to memorial services to various saints so visually expressed in our tradition through statues and shrines?

My approach to “memorials” has changed. Once they represented a homage to past events. But memorials carry multiple stories. Memorials can be a call to action. Our actions need not reflect the immovable nature of granite that memorials are often built with. Religious traditions utilize symbols as a means of grounding but primarily for the purpose of equipping followers to pursue movement, change and transformation.

President Barack Obama, center, his daughter Malia Obama, left, and Harry Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation, to his right, look up at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, as King family members and the first family look on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, on the National Mall in Washington. From right are Marion Robinson, first lady Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama.

Recent events leave one wondering what happened to King’s legacy? Yet, I remind myself that he was the Reverend Dr. King, a man of faith. Many of his speeches were from church pulpits, not podiums. He marched with people of all faith traditions and worldviews, sharing a similar understanding of the human person. 

He acted not out of political ideology, although I suppose he had one. Not out of economic concerns, although I am sure such issues were on his mind.  And not out of a sense of civic responsibility, although I am sure he felt such a responsibility.

I believe he acted out of the belief in the internal human dignity of each person, regardless of what one externally manifests. This core belief from his own tradition, shared by many others, was not a negotiable belief, nor is it for many people of faith, regardless of how well we might actually enact it in our daily lives.

It compelled him (compels me) to see the image of G-d in one’s neighbor, who is not just the person next door, but the neighbor in the next 100 houses. As my Muslim friends here in Austin remind me, metaphorically there is no end to the neighborhood.

Such a view requires a deep sense of hope, in the “as yet unseen” and in the uncertainty that the future brings with it. A hope that regardless of the seeming chaos that surrounds us, is a hope in a future that is built on the best of what we, what humanity can be with each other.

Humanity is not measured by the winners and losers, but in how we come together for greater purposes. Daunting some days, yes. Yet, for  King, his core faith gave him no other option. The “legacy of Dr. King,” is a phrase heard often, as any memorial might compel us to use. But I believe King was looking to a legacy that had yet … has yet, to reveal itself. It is a legacy of a world living together in the fullness of it humanity.

Perhaps we need to leave HIM a legacy instead.

James Puglisi is a professional with 25-plus years in the field of training, committed to building equity, diversity, and inclusion, through fostering dialogue and community building.  Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas.