The life, death and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 83 on Sunday, has been thoroughly chronicled, analyzed and celebrated.
From a national holiday to hundreds of streets in cities across the country to scores of books, people can learn about King, his message of nonviolent social change, and his epic declaration at the Washington Monument of his dream.
King’s courage in the service of his ideals and his soaring oration have garnered plenty of coverage. So, too, have his marital infidelity, and, to a lesser degree, his plagiarism on his doctoral dissertation.
Yet in all the coverage of King’s life, one quality of his has received comparatively little attention: his capacity to grow and to expand his vision.
King exhibited this ability from the time he was tapped to head the Montgomery Bus Boycott in large part because he had been in town less than a year and thus did not have deep ties to the various factions within the city’s black community.
The first request issued by the Montgomery Improvement Association he came to head in the struggle that launched him to national prominence did not call to overturn legal segregation.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Rather the group founded after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress trained in the discipline of nonviolence at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, asked the city to tell its bus drivers to treat them more kindly when asking them to move to the back of the vehicles.
Starting from there, King led a movement that eventually saw its cause vindicated by the Supreme Court headed by Earl Warren.
After Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy, King and other clergyman founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Their focus expanded from a Southern city to the entire system of desgregation that was legally entrenched throughout the South.
This effort took years, saw King arrested dozens of times and ultimately led not only to the dismantling of the system that had gained official sanction in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, but also to the affirmation of voting rights in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before the Selma to Montgomery march that preceded then-president Lyndon Johnson’s signature of the landmark legislation. In his address to the Nobel Committee and the world, he used his prophetic voice to signal the ascendance of economic injustice and the devastating impacts of war.
He continued to follow the trajectory he articulated in that address during the less than four years before his assassination at a Memphis hotel in April 1968.
After the Southern campaigns, he moved north to Chicago, where he went up against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in a campaign to eliminate slum housing conditions.
Although there were some victories that came from that effort, including inspiring the lifelong commitment to social justice of a then-teenaged Michael Pfleger, it was largely deemed a failure by observers within and outside of the movement (Longtime strategist Bayard Rustin had one of the more colorful assessments.).
Be that as it may, the effort to address economic conditions showed a broader concern and deeper analysis of American society as a whole than the exclusive focus on gaining access to segregated facilities.
King maintained that focus until the end of his life.
King was killed a day after giving the Mountaintop speech that would serve as his eulogy. He died supporting the “I am a Man” campaign held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis and while planning a Poor People’s March that would converge in the nation’s capital.
He also started to speak out against the Vietnam War.
Starting at the Riverside Church exactly a year before his assassination, in an address called A Time to Break Silence, King disregarded the counsel of many of his top advisers and broke ranks with the administration that had been a staunch ally.
He did so, he said, because he could not segregate his outrage about what he saw as the needless destruction of Vietnamese life that, based on his religious convictions, he had come to see as equally as valuable as the American soldiers who also died in their service to their country.
This global perspective came from the capacity to reassess, evaluate and expand one’s vision.
King is not unique in that capacity, as fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners Jane Addams and Nelson Mandela each demonstrated the same tendency.
Addams started pushing for improved sanitation services in Chicago wards and ended up being one of the world’s strongest voices for world peace. Mandela evolved from a homophobic firebrand to a leader of national reconciliation and an advocate of all people’s rights.
King’s capacity for growth is not diminished for being shared by other leaders. Rather it is an indicator that points us toward highlighting the importance of this ability in others who, like King, draw on their successes and failures to make a lost and global impact on the all too troubled world.
So, on the day when we pause to remember the Atlantan who strove mightily to improve life on the planet for millions of people during his less than four decades of life, we would do well to learn from, and seek to apply, this same quality of growth and expanded vision in our own lives.