Each year, we rightly pause to remember the life of a legendary figure in American history and courageous change agent for freedom and equality. Though Martin Luther King Jr. emerged in the midst of societal tension and conflict, his message and approach was one that sought to erase division, racism and hatred.
Without question, King set an incredible example of leadership, and he clearly recognized the tremendous weight of his calling. While he always spoke with unapologetic conviction, King also demonstrated that tactics matter for bringing real and lasting change.
Like others, I am always inspired by King’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital. His words thundered with truth and vision, calling on the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” and recognize that “all men are created equal.”
King played a defining role during the civil rights movement. He forcefully and rightfully condemned discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, and he affirmed that the “American dream” belonged to citizens of every background. But it was the nonviolent approach he encouraged against racial injustice and prejudice that ultimately started to change minds and hearts. While obvious problems still remain today, real strides were taken to work out some of the issues as a result of King’s call to act on the “high plane of dignity and discipline.”
There is nothing quite like seeing and hearing someone of such significance in person. When I reflect on King’s life, I am grateful for the memory of seeing him when I was studying at Grinnell College in October 1967. Several months later, I was stunned and saddened to hear of his tragic death. Having already lived through President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it was a crushing blow felt across my college campus and nationwide. While King dedicated his life to peacefully securing civil rights and freedoms, the upset surrounding his death unfortunately set off riots and acts of violence – something he would not have wanted for success of the movement.
During a time when Americans are divided on many things, it is worth reflecting on someone who brought us together, pointed us to the better angels of our nature and liberated our history.
Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, is currently serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” by Time Magazine and “the hardest working Member of Congress,” by Newsmax. In 2017, Cole was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.