MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (MLK) was one of the most famous civil rights activists in the history of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to end racial inequality. His life was tragically cut short at age 39 by an assassin’s bullet, but his contributions to this world have not been forgotten, and we remember his work and his words each year, on the anniversary of his birth.
In this age of unrestrained hate speech and social media “trolls,” his powerful speeches of inspiration, his belief in human dignity and compassion, along with his commitment to nonviolent solutions to systemic violence resonate more powerfully than ever.
This week, I challenge you to dedicate time each day to ponder and respond in writing to the words of MLK. To help you get started, I’ve provided writing prompts for each quote.
A Writing Opportunity
When you are done journaling, select one of the quotes you’ve explored — one that has spoken strongly to you and for which you have powerful feelings. Use what you’ve written as the basis for a personal essay, poem, or memoir vignette and send it to WritingThroughLife using the form at the bottom of this post. I will publish a selection of these works in March.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Writing Prompts: What challenges and controversies have presented themselves to you during this last year? How have you dealt with them and how are you dealing with current challenges? Do you avoid controversy and seek out the familiar and comfortable? Or do you take the opportunity to clarify your own thoughts and positions? What are some of the reasons you respond the way you do?
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
Writing Prompts: Do you think King’s words are true? Are we all part of an interconnected reality so that who we are is dependent in some ways on who others are around us? If this were an acknowledged truth, how might it change the way we relate to others in all areas of life? How would it change the way we communicate with one another?
Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
Writing Prompts: What does the phrase “internal violence of spirit” mean to you? How difficult is it for you to refuse to hate someone when they have injured you? What would it mean to truly be non-violent in spirit?
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Writing Prompts: We often take for granted that human progress and evolution toward a better world is inevitable. King’s words remind us that for every bit of progress we’ve made, someone has worked tirelessly and made sacrifices to achieve that progress. And though we don’t always give ourselves credit for our own sacrifices toward personal or community progress, it’s worth taking a look back and asking: What kinds of sacrifices have I made in my life for the sake of progress and growth in knowledge or character, or to promote justice, however small or seemingly insignificant?
(5)You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step. - MLK Click To Tweet
Writing Prompts: In your life, where are you hesitating to go because you can’t see the whole path to its destination? What is the first step, and what would happen if you took it?
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Writing Prompts: There has always been political controversy about social programs that provide safety nets for the poor. Where do you stand? Do you believe that it’s more — or less — important to shore up military defense than to provide basic necessities, such as medical care, food, and shelter to those without? What is the basis for your belief?
Put yourself in a state of mind where you say to yourself, “Here is an opportunity for me to celebrate like never before, my own power, my own ability to get myself to do whatever is necessary.”
Writing Prompts: In what ways are you most powerful and able to do what’s necessary to move forward in your life? How might you celebrate that power?
Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.
Writing Prompts: In what ways do you serve others or your community? Do you have an attitude of service? Do you think an attitude of service is necessary? Why or why not?
Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
Writing Prompts: What do you think King meant by these words? What is something we cannot see that casts a shadow over what we do see?
When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast with a scientific and technological abundance. We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.
Writing Prompts: Do you think King’s sentiments here are true? We’ve come much further in technology and science since he wrote these words. How far have we come in learning to walk the Earth together? What’s holding us back?
Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
To submit an essay, poem, or memoir vignette inspired by MLK’s words for possible publication on WritingThroughLife, select “yes” to open the submission form. Deadline for submission is February 28, 2018. All work must be original and previously unpublished.
Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and has been revised for this issue.
For additional quotes, meditations, and weekly writing prompts, be sure to pick up your copy of
Week by Week: A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations.