Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in October 1967 that it is as revolutionary now as it was then.
“I want to suggest some of the things that should begin your life’s blueprint,” King told a group of junior high school students in Philadelphia. “Number one … should be a deep belief in your own dignity. Your worth and your own ‘somebodiness’ … Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
The idea that every person has inherent worth, value and dignity, and that each person counts and is significant is an idea that lifts up the powerless in society and that humbles the powerful and causes them to think not just about their own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-5).
Because we all have worth and value before God, King could say to that group of school children the same thing that he said to the nation: That every person, regardless of skin color or background matters.
I stood over Maria’s (not her real name) hospital bed with the bad news lingering in my head.
The nurse told us that she was in grave danger after suffering complications from childbirth. Her condition was usually fatal, and the nurse said that we should pray for a miracle.
We did pray that night and God miraculously preserved her and her infant child for the next few days.
I thought about how much God cared for her and her little family and her newborn baby. Tragically, she died unexpectedly from complications from childbirth.
Even though she was brought here illegally by her parents 17 years ago, she still had worth and dignity that came from God. She was still valuable, even if many in our society saw her as “illegal.”
I thought about the Mixtec immigrants from southern Mexico who came to the Montgomery, Alabama, area where I lived and ministered.
These immigrants came not to have an easy life or because they wanted to take advantage of the benefits of America.
They came because their ancient work of corn farming had been largely eradicated by the global economy that saw American agribusiness dump excess corn into their markets. They had no work and they were told that there would be work for them north of the border.
So, over the last two decades they came. Many of them were brought here as young children with no choice in the matter. It is in America that they have grown up with no legal status and no way to get that status because of our immigration laws.
Maria and her husband were among that number.
King believed that people like Maria and her family have value because he was influenced by Scripture that says we are all made in God’s image and that we are all loved by God.
And, it is the love of God that enables us to love one another – even those who are different from us or who we are divided from because of race, ethnicity, language or nationality.
Jesus demonstrated that sacrificial love for us on the cross where he removed the barriers that divide us from God and from one another.
As we remember the legacy of King, we remember that he did not just call us to come together. Rather, he challenged the reasons why we were apart in the first place.
He spoke truth to power and called it to account. He considered the weak and the oppressed and he reminded them that they too were made in God’s image and that they have human dignity and a voice.
He reminded them that their futures mattered and that those trying to keep them from being what they could be would use whatever means they could to divide, disenfranchise and limit their access to power.
That is how the world worked, but there was a higher truth that went back to creation and the Creator – that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
We know that Maria and her husband have dignity and value, and that they, too, should have a future where they are able to live out their calling and God-given potential as image bearers of God.
When I work with the Mixtec immigrants in Alabama, the same city that King pastored in, I cannot help but think that the same core biblical values that animated the civil rights movement are available to us today to help us understand how we should treat one another and how the powerless can speak to all of us.
The fact that we all have worth and dignity that comes from us being made in God’s image should help us see one another in a new light. Instead of seeing people as “illegal,” or as black or white or brown in a limiting way, we should see people as image bearers of God, each with unique value and contributions to be made.
That is how King would have encouraged us. And, ultimately, that kind of thinking is in line with the better way of Jesus.
Alan Cross is founder and president of Community Development Initiatives in Montgomery, Alabama. He served as pastor of Gateway Baptist Church in Montgomery for 15 years and is the author of “When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Evangelicals and the Better Way of Jesus.” You can follow him on Twitter @AlanLCross.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series about local churches and associations participating in MLK Jr. Day observances and engaging in racial reconciliation initiatives.
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