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Dan Porterfield: The Enduring Ideals of Dr. King

My dear friend Dan Porterfield, President of Franklin & Marshall College, offered these observations in the Huffington Post. I was 9 years-old when Dr. King was assassinated. My father and I were watching television on the evening of April 4, 1968 when the special bulletin interrupted the program. I remember my father being troubled. And I remember not knowing who Dr. King was. I would quickly learn.

On Jan. 21, we again reflect upon the meaning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. For me, this day has always been especially significant because I have memories of Dr. King from my childhood that inspire me today.

How did I “know” Dr. King? Born in 1961, I grew up in integrated Baltimore City neighborhoods, where, before and after his assassination in 1968, he was a hero for black and white children. In grade school, we learned that he was our Frederick Douglass and our W.E.B. DuBois, teaching the whole country that discrimination is wrong.

Looking back, I now appreciate that many of us felt a distinctly personal connection to Dr. King. We kept pictures of him in our living rooms and 33 rpm album recordings of the “I Have a Dream” speech. My father drove from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to witness the March on Washington. I’ll never forget the emotions of my parents when he was killed.

In the 1970s, as I had more opportunities to engage with other young people of diverse backgrounds through activities in the community, I began to see the depressing human effects of poverty and racism. At the same time, I started reading Dr. King’s sermons and speeches, which offered a context for meaning and for hope. I began to think of him not only as a heroic man of action, but also as a thinker whose ideas were an enduring component of his leadership.

His words still remain with us today, providing lessons of where we came from as a nation and where we aspire to go — who we were, and who we want to be.

He said in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

And in his “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” his words have resonance today when we recall that he said that the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing “say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he said that those who protested segregation with civil disobedience “were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

And he reminded us in his “Remaining Awake in a Great Revolution” sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington mere days before he was killed, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality … . For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

And finally, Dr. King gave us words to live by in his last sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.” He said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve … . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

These are some of the ideals we celebrate today when we reflect upon the legacy of Dr. King. And we celebrate the enduring relevance of such ideas, the spirit-lifting fact that every day, untold Americans try to live in accordance with these and other ennobling values.

I’m deeply gratified that America has a designated day when we recognize Dr. King. As an educator, I share Dr. King’s belief that providing all with equal access to an empowering education is the essential investment a democracy makes in its people and its future.

“Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,” Dr. King wrote in the Morehouse College newspaper 56 years ago when he was a junior. That’s no less true in 2013. Today is the perfect day to recommit to that principle, for students at every level of education, and thank all those teachers and supporters of education animated by exactly that ideal.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.