Reflections on the True Meaning of MLK Day

The will to do right is more important than the vanity in knowing you’ve made a difference.

Ironically, it was my own vanity that brought me to this humbling conclusion.  My incessant quest to search my name on the web to assess the reach of my work revealed that the true impact of my efforts has less to do with me, and more to do with others.  When I inspire others to do something that I haven’t, and perhaps to soar to heights I’ll never reach, I achieve the pinnacle of my work.  In that view, the true impact of my work is immaterial and immeasurable, with rewards achieved only through faith and conviction.  

After searching my name on the web this week I found a story about Dr. Esrom Pitre, the principal of Donaldsonville (La.) High School.  After attending a forum that I organized, along with my colleague Dr. Chance Lewis, for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation during the Democratic National Convention, Pitre formulated an idea to organize an essay contest for students at his high school.  The winners of the contest would win a trip to Washington, D.C., for MLK Day and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Pitre certainly did not have to attribute the idea to Dr. Lewis and me.  He took a relatively loosely presented notion and converted it into a formal program that will directly impact the lives of five Black high school students from a small town in South Louisiana.  Pitre’s ambition inspired me to think deeper about the meaning of my work and of the spirit of MLK day.

The true measure of our work is immeasurable.  We cannot measure our work on the ratings on surveys or accolades in the press.  Good deeds permeate society and influence others to do better and do more.

The sum total of our work is greater than the collection of the parts.  Pitre is an educational administrator who cultivated and shaped the destiny of 5 student leaders.  According to the American Community Survey, there are 132,725 educational administrators in the United States.  If each one followed Pitre’s lead, 663,625 student leaders across the nation would benefit in only 1 year – more than twice the number of people who attended the March on Washington in 1963.

A spark can start a flame which will create a fire.  What started with our ancestors and culminated with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, led to a generation of scholar activists, which, in this case, sparked the ambitions of a small town principal.  This journey will continue with the social innovations of the students whose lives will be indelibly shaped by a once in a lifetime visit to Washington, DC to witness a history making inauguration.

MLK Day is not about a man, and our good deeds are not about us.  MLK Day is not a day to celebrate a man, but an opportunity to adhere to a mission — a mission inspired by altruism, fueled by conviction, and rewarded by dogged faith that the spark of your work can ignite a fire in the distance.

Dr. Ivory A. Toldson is an associate professor of Counseling Psychology at Howard University, author, researcher, lecturer and editor in chief of the Journal of Negro Education.

Dr. Ivory ToldsonDr. Ivory Toldson