Keeping the dream alive

January 15, 2001|By Martin Luther King III

NEW YORK -- My father would have been 72 years old today.

Each year, the celebration of his birthday marks a time for our family and the entire nation to reflect on the life and legacy of a man who inspired us to dream of a better world and take action to make the dream a reality.

But it is also a very personal time for me to remember my father. I was 10 years old when he was taken from us, and on his birthday, I am reminded of the small moments we shared and the lessons that last a lifetime.

I also knew he had a mission -- that he was doing something good and just and right. And while I did not have the opportunity to work by his side, he communicated to us in unspoken ways the profound importance of community and the power of committed social action.

My father believed passionately in the power of every individual to make a difference -- particularly young people. My father was only 26 when he helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Many of his associates were younger. His words and actions helped to inspire an entire generation of youth to get involved in the fight against injustice and join in the long march toward freedom.

My father showed us that young people can be visionaries and powerful agents of change. Many of the victories of the civil rights movement stemmed from the courageous acts and undeterred idealism of young people: Franklin McCain was 19 when he stood up for all people by sitting down at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter. Elizabeth Eckford, 15, endured racist, violent threats as she walked into history as one of nine black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock.

Starting today, more than 3 million young people across America will continue the work of building a better world by participating in the fourth annual Do Something Kindness and Justice Challenge. It is a national education initiative that inspires students in grades K-12 to help others and stand up for what is right for two weeks in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday.

The school-based leadership program teaches young people the values my father lived and died for -- justice, compassion, responsibility, non-violence and moral courage -- and inspires them to put these values into practice by performing positive acts. All participating students receive recognition and students who carry out community building projects are eligible to receive grants to help them turn their ideas into action.

Every school in America is invited to participate. Educators can register on the Internet at http://coach.dosomething.org or by calling Do Something at 212-523-1189.

Young people can also get involved by visiting Do Something's teen Web site -- www.dosomething.org -- where they can learn about my father's life and teachings, follow the efforts of young people during the civil rights movement and connect to young people who are continuing the struggle for tolerance and social justice.

As we begin a year, let us celebrate my father's birthday by rededicating ourselves to continuing his unfinished work. If students can commit to a day of kindness and justice, then they can commit to a week of kindness and justice -- a week becomes a year, a year becomes a lifetime.

While my father did not live to see this new century, he is with us, leading us and challenging us to make our fragile world a better place. Now we must inspire a new generation to carry the torch of leadership and community into the future -- to build a nation worthy of our greatest dreams.

Martin Luther King III, eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and chair of the Do Something Kindness and Justice Challenge.

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