As I anticipate our nation’s observance of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the word “legacy” has been on my mind. One definition for that words supplies us with this: “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.” The English word “legacy” is derived from the late 14c., “a body of persons sent on a mission,” from Old French legacie “legate’s office,” from Medieval Latin legatia, from Latin legatus “ambassador, envoy”.

Dr. King was, indeed, an envoy…an ambassador for righteousness bearing a message of truth that was often uncomfortably received. The legacy of Dr. King’s life and his passionate commitments are still being debated, some forty-three years after his assassination in April, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. Had he lived, what might Dr. King have done, what causes would he have embraced, what strategies would he have employed? Would Dr. King recognize in the Occupy Wall Street movement the legacy of his Poor People’s Campaign? Would he have agonized over U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same fervor that he was bringing to his opposition to the Vietnam War when his life was snuffed out? We can only speculate.

“On the last Saturday of his life, sitting in his study at Ebenezer, King fretted and contemplated a fast–a genuine sacrifice for a man who joked about how his collars were growing tighter. He mused about getting out of the full-time movement, maybe becoming president of Morehouse College. Then his spirits started to rise. “He preached himself out of the gloom,” says Jackson. “We must turn a minus into a plus,” King said, “a stumbling block into a stepping-stone–we must go on anyhow.”

[From an article by Vern E. Smith and Jon Meacham, published in Newsweek in 1998,  found here.]

Anyone who has studied Dr. King’s life, replete with the challenges and contradictions to which every human being is prey, cannot but conclude that Dr. King–had he lived–would have found a way to “go on anyhow”.

Looking at our fractious society with its ever-expanding wealth disparity, at our environmentally-challenged planet, at the seemingly intractable conflicts that erupt in violence and bloodshed, we are ever mindful of the need for the precious legacy that Dr. King bequeathed us….the sacred obligation to “preach [ourselves] out of the gloom” and “turn a minus into a plus”.

I hope that you will avail ourselves of these opportunities to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday and to tap in, once again, to his inspiring legacy.

Reb Elias