This is one of my favorite quotes from an imminently quotable man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s Martin Luther King Day here in the United States, which, if you know anything about our current situation, is irony at its most depressing. I don’t want to get into it in an Inspiration post (#BlackLivesMatter), but I do want to talk about why I love this quote.
It comes from his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” which was given in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, and it is frighteningly prophetic. He had just been attacked and nearly killed in New York City, and so he is talking about how, like Moses, he has seen the promised land, but might not get there with everyone else. He is encouraging his listeners to keep up their efforts and to keep the movement alive, even though he’s also telling them he will probably die. And even as he talks about the struggles they have gone through, and will go through, and the mace, and dogs and violence against them, he holds fast to his principles, saying “it’s nonviolence or nonexistence”.
This is a powerful speech. Not only because it outlines the economic boycotts they will impose, or its prophetic qualities, or even his rhetorical skill. It’s powerful because of the inspiration and encouragement he gives. And that is why I love this quote so much, because of the truth behind it, and the context in which he says it:
“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding–something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee–the cry is always the same– ‘We want to be free.'”
Even today, over 40 years later, we still face so much confusion and trouble. And we must keep marching forward, arm in arm, focused on that statement, and that goal: “We want to be free.” It’s a beautiful quote, and it means so much to me as I watch the efforts of groups like “Black Lives Matter” and more trying to use their voices and continue this struggle forward.
But I also love this quote for the encouragement it gives to all struggles. I say it to myself when I am stuck and frightened, or worrying too much and can’t see the answer. I remind myself that only when it is dark can we see the light that leads us forward. When it is dark we can see the light shining from the people ahead of us, or the ones who love us so fiercely that they light up with it. And we can see the light of all the good things that we do have in our lives.
We can see the beauty of the stars, and that is a gift too. I begin thinking about the people who watched the stars all those years ago and how far we have come. We have used science to shoot ourselves up into that darkness and learn about the stars and planets that shine down on us. That is proof of progress right there. These are the thoughts I have when I’m trying to remind myself that it’s just one more step, just keep going one more step.
I hope you are encouraged in your struggle today. I hope you take heart from Dr. King, and look at the stars when it is dark. I hope you think for a while about how far we’ve come, and I hope you take a step further today, both in your work, and also in your efforts to make this country one that Dr. King can be proud of.
If you would like to watch the full speech you can do that here.