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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Waiting vs. Action

Drawing of figures suggesting houses, with caption Free Zone.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led an extraordinary life. At 33, he met with President John F. Kennedy to advocate for civil rights. When he was 34, he stirred the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech. At 35, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and at 39, he was assassinated.

The same year he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, he also led a non-violent march in Birmingham, Alabama. He was arrested, and from his jail cell wrote the famous and inspiring, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The Movie

The movie Selma, is a 2014 a historical drama based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. It tells the story of Dr. King’s historic journey to attain voting rights for all people. In the movie, he meets with President Lyndon Johnson, and is told that the voting rights issue must wait. There are those who say the film takes liberties with the facts, but what we know for certain is this: Dr. King was told on many occasions to wait for voting rights, and was criticized for taking action. He wrote, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to address a statement by clergymen that called his activities “unwise and untimely.”

Dr. King believed after years of waiting, many broken promises, and laws unheeded*, that it was no longer time to wait. He said, “Wait, has almost always meant never…We know through painful experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Time Alone Changes Nothing

What he knew was that time alone changes nothing. It is only through hard work and the help of a community that life changes and you change. Dr. King wrote speeches and sermons, he brought people together and he marched in the front row with his community. Change began to happen.

Dr. King also emphasized a point that applies to all of us: inspiration and insight are not enough to cause change. You must take action.

He talked about oppression and progress for the human race. What he had to say applies not only to an external struggle; it also applies to the internal struggle for growth and change. Equality begins inside of each of us.

Personal Oppressors

We all have within us our personal oppressors…the Harsh Inner Critic and the messages it provides. The Harsh Inner Critic is caught in the past and lives by archaic rules. It works to prevent you from being free to have the life you desire. Action must be taken for you to change your life and free yourself from your emotional pain.

Taking Action

Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. For growth and change to happen, you must quit waiting and take action on your own behalf. Dr. King created a community of like-minded people to work with him to bring change. He did not do it alone. For you to bring change, you must take action and create a community, even if it is only a community of one.

Dr. King worked throughout his life to bring about equality and freedom. His was a life ended too soon, but he left us with many thoughts that apply to this day. As you consider taking action within your own life to bring about the change you need, consider one last quote from his “Letter”:

“Time itself is neutral, it can be used either destructively or constructively…Human process never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes with tireless effort of men (women) who are willing to work.”

*In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown V Board of Education that segregation in schools was unlawful, yet this ruling was not being enforced at the time in many Southern states.

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