Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Message of Character

Martin Luther King

“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.”

Everyone recognizes this famous quote from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech which was delivered 53 years ago this year on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15th, yesterday was the national holiday, which was signed into law by President Reagan in 1986, that honors the slain civil rights leader. In honor of Dr. King federal offices were closed, tributes were offered, and TV specials chronicled his life and legacy.

I don’t remember who said it, but on one program it was observed that it’s too easy to remember Dr. King the man and forget his message. Maybe this is best done by reflecting on some of his other quotations relating to “the content of character.”

Regarding the value of a proper education he Dr. King once said, “Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.”

On another occasion, he correctly observed, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and conveniences, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In The Testament of Hope, Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Speaking to the issue of conscience and ethics, he said, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

Martin Luther King encouraged others to serve, to work, and to use whatever talent, ability or opportunity one possessed. He said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

All of these quotes speak to some aspect of one’s character. Of moral qualities. Ethical standards. Honor and integrity.

Indeed character is the foundation of all other qualities. Goodness. Virtue. Honesty. Courage. Purity. All of these and more are the fruit produced from the root of character. They are the handiwork of thoughts, influences, and relationships. The wise man wrote, “As he thinks in his heart so is he” (Prov 23:7).

It is often in the crucible of conflict, hardship and struggle that character is molded and refined. That why the apostle Paul wrote, “…We also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Rom. 5:3-5)

As we reflect on the message of character, here are three questions to consider:

What is the content of my character?

Do my attitudes and actions pass the “character test”?

Do I need a course correction regarding character?

As Dr. King once said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” This character challenge speaks to the essence of his message to all races, but importantly honors the God who created us after His image.

–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman

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