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Posted: January 23, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Cushman: Dedicate life to service

On Jan. 17, we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated when he was just 39. He would have turned 82 this year. This is the perfect time to think through the legacy and the lessons we should take from his too-short life.

King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, from in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It was 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. About 250,000 people gathered that day: black, white, young, old, Northerners and Southerners, for the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

Today, with unemployment at 10 percent and a burgeoning deficit, Americans could use another "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

As noted in my book, "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," King focused his speech on reaching higher and making progress together."

He often drew on imagery from Bible passages to communicate with his audience. This speech was no different: "Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so 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 my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ... that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

It would be impossible to fully appreciate King without understanding the influence of his faith and his background of Biblical knowledge. His father, the Rev. Martin King Sr., led Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church for four decades.

Growing up a preacher’s son, the future civil-rights leader spent countless hours listening to sermons, songs and testimony. Their influence is evident in his speeches and writings. His speeches conveyed to their audiences that they could and should be more and do more. His message was inclusive, that a better future was possible if we worked together.

I heard a lot about a "national day of service" leading up to the holiday and thought the phrase confusing and ill-fit. If the holiday is to commemorate King’s life and his impact, then the call should be for a life of service, not just a day.

We all have opportunities to serve, in big and small ways, from helping our families, sending money overseas to help others less fortunate, serving on a board or teaching Sunday school.

Service need not mean serving on the board of a foundation. It can also be more personal, like helping someone by opening a door when they have full hands, or volunteering at a school or library.

For parents, it might mean focusing on children when they need encouragement and catching up at work later.

While on some days we know it might be easier to do less, we also understand that as members of families, and communities, we have a responsibility to be involved, to be active and to help others. Service stems from our ability to connect and see others as human beings who, while fully flawed, are worth our time, energy and focus. Let’s dedicate ourselves to lives of service, not just a day of service.

Learn more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman at www.creators.com.

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