Dr. King’s Legacy: Empathy Can Unite Us


Dr. Martin Luther King was the moral and intellectual leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and his dream was to bring peace and justice to everyone, regardless of race, creed, age, ethnicity or religion, creating a world that is safe, fair, and equitable for all.

As we celebrate Dr. King and his legacy this month, it is important for all of us to think deeply about equality, social justice, and the essential humanity of each person. Part of being human means appreciating everyone, regardless of who they are and where they come from.

When we look at ourselves, each of us has vulnerabilities and weaknesses, as well as strengths and talents. We need to help each other when help is needed; learn from, respect, and empower others; and do all we can to make them feel strong and confident,  rather than inadequate or embarrassed.  As humans, we have the responsibly to learn the power of courage and the importance of empathy, as we try to understand what others are feeling and experiencing.

I believe we — meaning all of us — can be united by a capacity for empathy and we can flourish when we come together to help each other.  We can value a sense of togetherness built from compassion for others.

As we know, Dr. King dedicated his life to ending racial and economic inequality and, in doing so, demonstrated a rare form of empathy in many different situations. He heard and saw people — all people — and understood how people on both sides of an issue — even the most divisive issue — actually felt. This allowed him to practice peaceful problem-solving in the name of social justice. We see this in all of his actions and his writing.

Many of us have read Chapter 111, “On Being a Good Neighbor,” by Dr. King, in which he uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate altruism and, I would also say, to show us what empathy looks like. Concern for others is as much part of life as concern for self.

In this chapter, Dr. King writes: “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and therefore brothers.” I would simply add that those inner qualities make all people human and therefore in a sense family.

He also writes in the same chapter: “ The ultimate measure of a man [or a person] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy.”

We are diminished as individuals and humans if we ignore the plight of others, and we are deeply rewarded if we reach out and empathize with others. Each individual in our community has the responsibility to speak up if she sees mean behavior or hears unkind put-downs towards another person. It is not acceptable to ignore and say or do nothing.  Dr. King talks about passive vs. active morality, meaning we must stand up for others, and speak out against mean, unkind, mocking words or actions and refuse to tolerate them. We become allies and not just passive bystanders.

Finally, Dr. King reminds us, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As a nation we have come a long way, and I suspect that Dr. King would be proud of the progress we have made, made, but I suspect he would also say that we still have much work to do.

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