Arc of the Pilgrimage


As we progress in years, holidays oftentimes can lose some of their luster. Things just don’t have the same spark anymore, the sense of magic and wonder ebbs a bit, and the latitude of a “day off” gets supplanted by a multitude of logistics and preparations. Still, some holidays resonate on a different level and preserve their meaning over time — especially when they’re not particularly over-commercialized.
For me, the most special of these is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Over the course of a quarter century, this day has been one of momentous events and deep reflections alike. It’s easy to fall into the sanitized version of MLK Day, honoring his legacy through some sort of perfunctory activity or simply remembering the “I Have a Dream Speech” of 1963 while skipping the more radical ones that followed. On my path, King has figured prominently as a political and spiritual guide whose message still resounds.
Over the years as an educator, King’s speeches and texts have been a regular component of my courses, not just when the holiday arrives but more generally. The lessons we can gather from his life and work are voluminous and essential, from the need to have our moral and spiritual development keep pace with our technological and economic prowess, to the remediation of poverty as a fundament of justice.
As an advocate and activist, being steeped in King’s mission was crystallized on the holiday in 1999. On that exact day, a new law took effect in Tempe, Arizona, that banned sitting on the sidewalk and made it a crime to do so. I had been challenging the wisdom and justice of that law, and on MLK Day organized a political sit-in to dramatize the point. My doctoral dissertation and a subsequent book recounted the experience as part of a larger campaign to contest privatization of space and the denigration of people.
My writings over the years often have invoked King’s lessons as a counterpoint to forces on display in society. Contrasting King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech with that of others, reflecting on the enduring legacy of the “arc of the moral universe” motif that he popularized, and revisiting his intonations through a robust anti-war lens have all been part of my output and, more importantly, have helped shape my worldview. His invocation of the “beloved community” particularly engendered my comprehension of mutualism.
In 2019 I wrote a piece recounting a visit to the historical landmark at the Birmingham Jail, where King wrote his famous letter in 1963 — a watershed essay that was actually written on slips of paper while King was being held in the jail, and subsequently assembled and distributed by allies on the outside. Walking to the landmark in 2018 starkly revealed the persistence of issues King had struggled against.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of how King’s life and philosophy have impacted me. I’ve come to understand his vision as one grounded in ecological values of interconnection, and as a nascent cosmology that recognizes the inherent interweaving of individualism and holism, of diversity and unity. Perhaps more than any figure in modern history, King deployed the full force of his intellect for change.
And of course, he paid for that with his life. I don’t think King ever intended to be a martyr, but it seems that by the end he understood the role he played in the struggle and the need to see the cause through no matter the implications. Go back and listen to King’s final speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers. His closing words linger indelibly across the decades:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Unfathomably, King did all of this before the age of 40; his death on April 4, 1968 came exactly a year to the day after one of his most impactful and controversial speeches, calling out the failings of the US war in Vietnam and connecting it to social and racial justice issues at home. King gave this speech against the counsel of some of his allies, and his public approval waned after it. Yet he still persisted with the work.
Rhetoric aside, I think this perhaps was the most important lesson that King imparted: speak your truth, recognize your own limitations and vulnerabilities, commit to a path that coheres with your values, and go forward without fear. It’s never easy to do this, even under the best of conditions, but it’s essential if we have any chance of addressing profound interlocking crises that can feel like the worst of conditions.
Thank you, Dr. King, for helping to lift the veil and providing a template for an engaged, purposeful life. Remembering your legacy in the world also includes the reverberations felt by people like myself who have been influenced by your journey. We know you weren’t perfect, but that too is part of the lesson. Let us take a moment today to remember how much good we can do by showing up and persevering.

NOTE: Written in real-time for the 2023 MLK holiday; it was important for my own edification to recall some of the ways King has impacted me and my work; I’m still striving to manifest the essential lessons.