Martin Luther King, Jr.: Reflections on Ethical and Moral Research Administration

Article excerpt

Forty-five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a riveting, inspiring, and chastening message to the nation in his "I Have a Dream" speech. He stood in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial on the mall of the capital of the United States of America while a multitude gathered to hear a message of hope, challenge, prophecy, and--yes--condemnation. King raised concerns about our rich nation being pregnant with promise and possibilities and yet miscarrying on fulfillment of the same.

King charged that "....even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed--'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal'" (Speech in Washington, August 28, 1963). His resonant voice rose in a rhythmic cadence, charging that America had issued a "bad check" against its Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He observed that the check had come back marked "insufficient funds" for its citizens of color. The impact of this powerful speech culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed segregation in schools, public places, and employment. This eloquent speech was also a watershed event that ultimately contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured voting rights of African Americans.

Five years after his famous speech Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His resonant voice was silenced by an assassin's rifle bullet in a city that was not on his original itinerary. So why did Dr. King feel compelled to visit Memphis on that day? This diversion from his planned visit to Washington, D.C. was not supported by his aides, yet he felt duty bound to take part in a protest staged by sanitation workers who were striking for better wages. Instead of attending the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, he felt his presence was needed in Memphis.

What prompted King to make this trip to Memphis is known only to him, but as a pastoral care leader in a major medical center, I have tried to answer this question by relying on my background as a minister and an academic. Indeed, theologically speaking, Dr. King heard the Macedonian call (Holy Bible, Acts 16:9) for help, and he dropped his own perceived priority to take on a morally emergent one, practicing what he preached in a speech he gave in June 1963 in Detroit. "I submit to you," he said "that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

Forty years after the death of Dr. King there is opportunity to reflect on needs, hopes, and resources of a global community through the prism of the Kingian message of hope. This message focuses on his concept of living in "the beloved community" as elaborated in his book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958). This term was first coined by Josiah Royce, a 20th century American philosopher and founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, but Dr. King popularized the term. To him the "beloved community" was one that encapsulated a global yearning for peace and reconciliation wrapped in justice and dignity for all. His understanding resonates with this Baptist pastor, and many others in the world, who have been influenced by his yearning for justice and belief in Mahatma Ghandi's concept of civil disobedience through nonviolence resistance.

All these years later, we are now in a unique position to consider questions about how the Kingian message of hope might impact on the work that is undertaken by researchers in 2008. Reflecting on Dr. King's message, we might pay more attention to how we undertake our research in relation to our environment and the betterment of humankind. …

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