This is my daughter last year in DC at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. It’s remarkable how much one man’s impact has stretched for generations, beyond his own family. But it also makes me wonder, how did his own kids turn out?
I believe that the true legacy of a man, is what he instills into his children. But do you have to be physically present to instill something, or can your presence manifest itself in other ways as a father? To answer these questions, on this day that we choose to honor and recognize Dr. King’s contribution to society, I want to focus on his role as a father. We don’t talk a lot about the personal sacrifices Dr. King made to become the national leader of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the sacrifices made by his wife and children. Dr. King was after all, a young man father with four young children. Thus it bears exploring, because I suspect that in each of our lives, particularly for fathers, we will reach a crossroad where we could pursue work worth doing that takes us away from home. What’s our decision calculus for whether or not it’ll be worth it in the end?
I have to believe that a part of Dr. King’s personal decision calculus was the desire to model his values for his children, to show them that the way to stand up for themselves was to stand with others. A few lines he wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail depict this:
[Responding to why he is in Birmingham] But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Dr. King believed that it was his duty to serve. And he obviously believed that in the process of living out this value, not only would he make the world better for his children, but he would be doing a greater work for the rest of the world. Also, let’s not forget where he learned some of his own values from, his father, aka Daddy King was a prominent preacher and leader in the Atlanta community in his own right. Sometimes it’s not just about what we say to our kids (in fact, it’s mostly not about that), but it’s more how we live our lives that they’ll notice. Dr. King left a legacy of service that his kids could see, and that speaks volumes. And, as I’m coming to learn myself as a father, it’s not just about how much time I get to spend with my daughters, but what I do with that time that matters.
I had breakfast with a mentor of mine recently and I shared with him my own concerns for pursuing good work, at the risk of missing out on valuable moments in my young kids’ lives. I mentioned how I have been recently exploring opportunities to expand my impact in my local community, but as I make the choice, I’m aware of the different levels of committment that it might require of me and my family. The thing that makes my decision difficult is I know what it’s like to not have a father present, and I always vowed to not repeat those mistakes. However, I also understand the importance of role-modeling our values for our children, and how sometimes the way we live our lives, even if it’s from afar, can have just as much positive impact on our children as if we were right there with them.
Whatever our personal choices end up being, we have to recognize that as fathers, they will reverberate for generations. Will our children come to know us as iconic, heroic figures, or will we leave more personal legacies? Regardless of what we choose, we will leave some sort of legacy. It’s just up to us to be intentional about what kind we leave.