Fifty years ago Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in front of a crowd of 250,000 civil rights activists. It contained the memorable line ‘I have a dream’.
For me King is one of humanities true greats. He fought for what he believed in. His aim was to overcome injustice and his fight alongside thousands of others ended up changing the world. He made this difference by using the oratory skills that he had in abundance. Five years later, at the age of 39 he was assassinated.
His ‘I have a dream’ speech is inspiring, even today, yet it is some of King’s other quotations that stand out for me especially around morality and justice:
– Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
– I submit that an individual who breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.
– The time is always right to do what is right.
He believed strongly that right is right even if there was no one around to praise you and wrong is wrong even if there is no one around to catch you. I have tried throughout my adult life to live by this value but nothing involving humans is ever that definite.
Right and wrong are rarely absolutes. There are wrongs that are right in certain circumstances and rights that at times are just the wrong thing to do. Killing a person is accepted to be wrong yet most people believe that they would do it to protect a loved one. Speeding is wrong yet anyone who has driven has done it if only for the thrill. Speeding is less wrong than murder, there is no competition, but is doing 78 on a motorway less wrong then doing 38 in a built up area? Even the most law abiding citizen will ignore the laws that they don’t see as important. It is their choice.
We criticise large firms such as Starbucks and Vodafone for their tax affairs and so is it wrong to turn a blind eye when you know your neighbour is paying someone cash in hand with the obvious implication that they will avoid paying tax. I once turned down the offer of paying cash which ended up costing me a couple of hundred more in tax to mend my car. Did this make me a better person or am I just naïve and idealistic? That is my choice.
A person’s morals and their sense of right and wrong are on a sliding scale and it all depends upon context. The opposite of right isn’t always wrong. There are many subtle shades of difference in between. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference.
The choice of good or bad, right or wrong is ours alone. Only we can make ourselves do the right thing and shout out when we see wrongdoing and I believe that this is what Martin Luther King meant when he said that ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’
He changed the world not through violence but by drawing attention to injustice and embarrassing a government into action. ‘History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’
I hope that I am able to live up to his shadow.