1. King’s Dream is inclusive
White people are part of it, too. His Dream isn’t just for “the sons of former slaves”; it’s also for “the sons of former slave owners.” He foresaw a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” He strove toward a day that was not just a celebration for African Americans, but for “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” The Dream is full of hope and grace, welcoming the oppressed, but also those who were once oppressors, to the table of brotherhood.
2. Nonviolence can work
No one in American history proved it so powerfully, and apart from Gandhi, perhaps no one in the world. We live in a time of street protests, of mass demonstrations, and it seems violence is often the result. But King shows that even in the face of violence, peaceful resistance is possible. Guns are not needed in politics. Threats are not required to send a message. Change is possible — and is still possible today — with the iron will of perseverance in the face of adversity. King did not waste his time leading us toward a utopia that could never happen. He showed the world an attainable ideal of freedom and equality, one achieved through peaceful means.
3. He was religious without being aggressive
Most people know that King was a minister in a Baptist church in Alabama, but he had a vision that extended to both “Jews and Gentiles.” His love for Jesus and his knowledge of the gospels is apparent in his speeches — “I just want to do God’s will” — but he wasn’t overbearing. At least in his most well-known orations and in his letter from Birmingham Jail, King openly and poetically used the language of scripture to preach freedom, equality, justice, pacifism and love. King was a strong leader in the Church, but he was also a powerful leader in society. He was open about his beliefs and let them instruct his life, but he didn’t force it on others. He was confident, brave and tolerant.
4. King taught that black history is our history
Whether our ancestors ever lived in the American south or not, we are all the heirs of a history of discrimination. All of us come from slaves and slave owners, oppressors and oppressed, masters and servants, and, very probably, some permutation of them all. No one is exempt. No one can say, “It’s not my problem.” King said his Dream was “deeply rooted in the American Dream,” and that suggests a camaraderie of principle, a unity of purpose, a shared story. And this doesn’t just apply to racial discrimination. It also asserts a shared struggle against all the -isms — sexism, classism, ageism, etc. — that plague our less-than-perfect union.
5. He worked for his cause for a long time
This is one of the most impressive and inspiring things about King’s mission. He was thrown in prison in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott — he was in his mid-twenties and had just become a pastor. He struggled at the head of the civil rights movement for the next thirteen years. We often look at his “I have a Dream” speech as the highlight of his work, but that occurred in 1963. He continued to sweat and speak, travel and bleed, serve and endure for another five years. Even then, he was only 39 years old and would have continued his mission had he not been killed. King dedicated his whole life to the civil rights endeavor — not just a few speeches and marches. He knew it would be a hard, long road, but he marched down it with incredible perseverance. We should all be so tireless.