Martin Luther King, Jr. Asks the Big Question


So much to choose from in remembering him on Martin Luther King Day. What might Dr. King offer if he were with us today? Could he ask a fundamental question with the power both to calm us in chaos and also move us forward? I think so.

“Is your heart right? If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today” (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.). That’s the big question along with a clear mandate. Take an honest look within. Fix what’s not good.

King’s insistence on self-purification as a prerequisite for anyone engaged in activism and protest speaks to his and our moment in time and for all time. He demands rigorous self-analysis to ferret out one’s own anger and hate. These twin demons destroy the ability to think clearly. We become hotheaded and wrongdoing. We can’t achieve justice, peace, and unity when motivated by aggression, fear, and resentment. 

Nonviolence is essential to all actions aimed at dismantling wicked systems grounded in bigotry, supremacy, and cruelty. But we must cultivate nonviolence internally first. Remove the dangerous weapons residing in our hearts—replace corroding anger and hate with empathy and forgiveness. It’s the ongoing work of a lifetime, this fine tuning of our hearts.

On Dr. King’s Day, I imagine him asking us to drop petty self-righteousness and tackle the primary responsibility of improving our very selves. “There is a tension at the heart of human nature…and we must be honest enough to recognize it” (Autobiography).

Dr. King recognized that even our best instincts will face constant challenge—anger comes easy, extremism seduces, selfishness often wins.

While I can’t bring compassion to the world stage, I can reinforce it, over and over, in my every-single-day activity. I can try harder to get my heart right and keep it in more kind, more loving shape. If not world peace today, at least the attainment of a measure of inner peace is within reach. No longer paralyzed by despair, I can make a contribution to the world near and far through this work on myself. A practice of self-improvement grounds me in confronting poverty, injustice, and the outbreak of alarming irrationality. 

It’s heart-cleansing time.