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Five Lessons From MLK We Can Use Today

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CREDIT: Marc Peters

When President Barack Obama took the oath of office on Monday, Jan. 21, he placed his hand upon two bibles while swearing to uphold the duties of the presidency.

One of those bibles belonged to a preacher. He was a man who spread his message from behind a pulpit and in front of thousands of marchers, protesters and activists in the name of social justice on many occasions. He gave his full measure of devotion to the United States of America. That bible once belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King would have been 84-years-old this year, and had he survived the attempt on his life there's no telling how many more lessons on love, compassion and understanding he could have bestowed on us. However, even from beyond the grave, his decades-old speeches still hold true until this day. If we strive to pay heed to his words of advice maybe we'll be able to move forward on the issues that matter to us—as opposed to constantly getting stuck on politicized conflicts

In that spirit, here are five takeaways from a few of King's musings and speeches:

1. "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education." (written while he studied at Morehouse College)

Too often the focus of education is to obtain credentials. We're taught that acquiring the "relevant skills we need for the workforce" and passing tests will be the key to economic security. In his critiques the American education system, Jonathan Kozol, award-winning author and director of Cambridge Institute for Public Education, referred to teaching-to-the-test strategies as the "miserable mania of obsessive testing being forced on these kids." Skills and tests are important, but they pale in comparison to the importance of learning how to think critically for one's self—of how to examine information presented through the news, and making decisions that take humanity and not just self interest into account. When King talked of intelligence plus character, he meant that there was more to life than being smart for being smart's sake. Without moral intelligence, genius can't make intentional positive contributions to society.

2. "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools" ("I Have Been to the Mountaintop")

Though King spoke of brotherhood as it related to race relations in the U.S. in the late 60's (an issue where we most certainly still have our work cut out for us) it's applicable to nearly every contemporary issue we're dealing with today. It's also a lesson congressional members should take to heart if we're going to succeed in protecting our nation’s children through reasonable gun violence prevention measures. The president already conceded that he is not sure what he can get through this Congress. Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative and anywhere in between, we are brothers and sisters and if we cannot learn to get along, we will surely fail.

3. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” (1965 Oberlin Commencement Address)

In the interconnected world that we live in today, this quote could not be more relevant. The boundaries between us have been reduced to a degree that King could not have possibly envisioned when he spoke these words. Our identities are complex and intersect in ways that make the old ways of compartmentalizing progressive movements counter-intuitive. Young people, for example are taking the lead on equal rights in the LGBTQ community and are a real force in other social and economic justice movements. More than ever we find ourselves linked to a variety of communities. We understand that if rights are denied to one of our peers because of their sexual orientation, or some identity marker than that affects us all.

4. "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.”

You don’t need a credential to start making progress. You can get involved in the local K-12 school system where in the community you're attending college and do your part to break down the town-and-gown divide. You can give up your spring break to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. You can volunteer your time helping out with your school’s Take Back the Night efforts. Your Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service doesn't have to be a sanctioned event and can last well into your lifetime. As long as you care about your fellow human being, as long as you are compassionate about the ills of this world, then you are well-equipped to serve.

5. “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Obama promised the American people on Monday he would keep moving forward on change for the last four years of his presidency but as he stressed change isn't something he alone can foster. It's up to the people to hold politicians accountable and make their seat at the policy table a prominent place by using ways of participating in the political process that goes beyond the ballot. On the fiscal cliff negotiations, student debt issues, and immigration, young people capitalized on the amplifying effects social media can play on getting their voices heard on issues they care about. We have come far since Dr. King’s time of marches, rallies, petitions, and boycotts and while keeping the movement going will require using tried-and-true tactics, using technology's organizing advantages to amplify messages can keep ensure our democracy remains robust. Having sworn in the nation's first African-American president for the second time signifies change, but we have a lot further left to travel.

Marc Peters is a reporter at Campus Progress.You can follow Marc on Twitter at @rippleofhope.

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