Coffin, 1-12-2014

My Word: MLK: Celebrating a movement and a man

During the next couple of weeks, people across the nation will celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This year especially — the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act — we’re reminded of his achievements.

“But wait,” someone may be saying, “the Rev. King didn’t make all those things happen. He simply capitalized on the decades of blood, sweat, toil and tears expended by tens of thousands of unheralded foot soldiers who labored without fame or fanfare.”

True. At least in part. Rarely is a major social advance achieved without the unflagging efforts of large numbers of the unrecognized. But usually there’s also a galvanizing figure. MLK played such a role. And he did it remarkably.

In the civil-rights struggle, a diverse array of people worked in concert to do battle against formidable odds. And they won. At least to a gratifying degree. Working together were black and white, Christian and Jew, clergy and laity, believers and atheists, male and female, government leaders and ordinary citizens, presidents and legislators. And King.

Certainly, the civil-rights movement was broad-based. And that base provided a solid platform on which a man with King’s unique persona could stand elevated.

His phenomenal use of language, his breadth of vision, his skill in connecting with both black and white, his message of peace, his tenacity, his ability to seize the moment and, ultimately, his martyrdom — all melded into a force that simply had to be reckoned with.

There was a pervasive sense of righteousness. And there was Martin Luther King Jr., sharpening the vision, rallying the troops and refusing to back off.

It was a high day — and a new day — when, on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. It was the result of a collective effort in which all players contributed what they could, from the most unheralded to the most visible.

The specific goals may have shifted, but major social and civil-rights challenges remain. So let’s learn the lessons of the past: Let’s unstintingly play whatever role we can — even roles without fame or fanfare.

And let’s hope that galvanizing leaders of King’s caliber will again emerge when we need them most.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.