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Each January, communities across America remember and celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Over and over again, we hear, "I have a dream." It's our theme; it's our mantra; it's our focus.
However, I believe it's time to move beyond "having a dream" to implementing it and making it a daily reality in our nation. This year, I propose we pause to examine King's legacy beyond the dream all across America and put into practice some four-letter words and apply one simple, yet powerful, daily routine that will create positive action.
Our annual MLK celebrations are often occasions at which we gather to eat and listen to a keynote speaker. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. was an incredibly talented leader – perhaps the premiere leader of 20th century America.
However, knowing the tremendous richness of his legacy and then participating in a one-dimensional, annual celebration always leaves me frustrated. I grow quite weary of observances at which we just "have a dream" and seldom offer any substantial insight into the depth of King's knowledge, philosophies and leadership.
I get annoyed with events that don't result in the acknowledgement and exploration of the deeply held beliefs about race that corrode our minds, tarnish our hearts and perpetuate divisions.
I become discouraged with events that seldom produce positive action. As a matter of fact, I get so tired and perturbed I begin to use four-letter words – the same four-letter words King often used that I would like to remind us of.
The first four-letter word is "hope." King said, "We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."
Hope is the element that prevails throughout all stages of progress. Without it, we would be paralyzed. Hope means we have faith we can realize our oneness, trust we will find the creative solutions to truly unite groups and reliance on one another.
One highly regarded characteristic of a great leader is vision. King had vision and could see far beyond others. He was also an expert at sharing what he could see and giving people hope.
Under his leadership, people found promise and were motivated. When we heard his eloquent discourse and his intoxicating words, it caused us to rise up off of our couches, leave our homes and go about the business of creating unity and equality. His persuasive oratory brought the "beloved community" to life in our hearts and minds, and it inspired a cadre of supporters who were eager to help America live up to its founding charter.
The second four-letter word is "love." When King talked about love, he said he was not talking about sentimentality, but about deep bonds – the cement that connects our hearts and lives.
He asked us to act with love and to let go of hate because, "Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it."
King was a living example of love and justice. He had the courage to speak for kindness, compassion and consideration in a way that was not weak, but was extremely courageous. In fact, he had so much courage he gave it away and he encouraged others to do the same. As a result, we began to reclaim our powerful voices for justice and to lovingly take action to institutionalize the principles of equality and justice into our systems.
Together, we worked to create the America that was only imagined when our nation was founded. When addressing students at Bartlett High School in Philadelphia, King advised them, "Don't allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don't allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice – however young you are. You have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation in which to live. You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody, and so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice."
That brings me to the final four-letter word, "work." King told us we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. He said, "America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled."
So having a dream is one thing, but making that dream a national reality requires work. "Equality and justice for all" is the vision of our forefathers that was renewed by King. Today, as citizens of one nation, we are called to resume the process and to take affirmative measures to truly unite our citizens and make us one people – Americans.
Nonviolent, positive action is a way of honoring, preserving and practicing our national heritage, and it requires the energy, effort and commitment of all citizens.
There is still plenty of work to be done, and you can choose your contribution. Our ongoing issues include an educational achievement gap for minority students that remains a threat to our collective advancement; an unemployment rate for people of color double that of white citizens; a median income for blacks that is about 60 percent that of white households; a home ownership gap for people of color that exceeds 25 percent; a suicide rate for American Indians that is triple the national rate; human rights violations for American Indian and Alaskan Native women so egregious that it was spotlighted by Amnesty International in 2007; and racial attitudes identified in national surveys that reflect what King called "racial ignorance." So, as you become involved, you have a broad spectrum from which to choose.
This year as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I propose every American implements a simple technique that is oh, so powerful. What is it? At the end of every day, as you lay your head on your pillow, ask yourself, "What did I do today to contribute to the realization of equality and justice for all?"
Perhaps your contribution was as effortless as offering a kind word, serving as a mentor or educating someone about an inappropriate attitude. Maybe it was as straightforward as exploring a personal prejudice or acting in a way that set a higher standard for your workplace. A nightly review will train your subconscious to look for opportunities as they come your way. As you hone your skills, you will become more empowered and more engaged in taking daily steps to unite our nation.
You will find this regular practice of bringing yourself to account at the end of the day will make you conscious of the everyday contributions you make and help you realize that when it comes to nation building, action is so much more fulfilling than just dreaming.