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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Dignity of Satisfaction


Earlier this week, we celebrated the life and influence of Dr. Martin Luther King. The America we know today has been dramatically altered for the good in large measure due to the vision and diligence of Dr. King.

In his “I Have A Dream” speech, King addressed the issue of “satisfaction.” When would advocates of civil rights be satisfied? He stated that satisfaction would not come while African Americans were subjected to policy brutality, while segregation remained, or while voting rights were withheld. It would not come as long as progress meant merely movement from one sphere of poverty to another or while children were devalued through signs such as those stating, “For Whites Only.” He said that he dreamed of a day when those travesties would no longer reign.

Many of those dreams have come true. Rates of police brutality have fallen dramatically, segregation has been abolished in all public educational institutions, and offensive signs have largely been relegated to scenes in historical movies. Unthinkable in years gone by, an African American presides in the White House. Truly, the vision of Martin Luther King has become a reality of today’s America in many ways. However, while Dr. King spoke of those things which would not bring satisfaction, I sometimes wonder about those things which would.

Two years ago, I attended a lecture given by a civil rights activist. His reputation as a philosopher and author was firmly established. I studied his theories in my university courses and anxiously awaited his lecture. True to form, he gave an amazing presentation. He spoke with passion, with intellect, and with sincerity. I was very impressed—with one exception.

A student had asked for a comment on the progress that had been made since the time Dr. King began his fight. Instead of appropriately lauding the advances that had been made, the speaker discounted them. He said that we should place our entire focus on the progress that has yet to occur. As with his other points, the speaker was passionate. However, unlike earlier in his speech, I felt not inspired—but uncomfortable. After all that had taken place since the 1960’s, barely a word of praise was uttered. He spoke as if the students in attendance had to pass through their own signs labeled “For Whites Only” to see him speak.

Referring to the fight for civil rights, Martin Luther King stated, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity.”

To me, dignity includes a sincere respect not only for ourselves, but for others. Dignity recognizes the innate worth of humanity and the accomplished good in all people—even in our enemies. Dignity does not wear rose-colored glasses, but instead views society and self with a realistic and dignified optimism. If I am 200 pounds overweight and seek to correct the life-threatening issue, a loss of 50 pounds still leaves me with plenty of ground to cover. To discount the progress that had been made and focus only on the work yet to be done would make me discouraged. Not only would this perspective leave me without satisfaction, but it would also leave me without dignity. On the other hand, if I were to recognize the progress that had been made and commit yet again to pursuing my goal, my satisfaction would indeed be dignified!

The struggle for civil rights will always have some measure of progress ahead of it. I think it is a mistake to discount the strides that have been made in favor of emphasizing all that yet needs to be. To do so comes dangerously close to fighting for dignity without actually being in possession of the virtue. The legacy of Martin Luther King can be maintained not only by acting for change, but also by using the triumphs of yesterday to fuel the victories of tomorrow. If we do so, we will then find that our satisfaction is truly dignified.