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Honoring the Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was a powerful leader with great empathy, a combination that is rare.

Key points

  • The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. built empathy in a most skillful and deep way.
  • We can honor the memory of Dr. King by acting empathically.
  • By embracing empathy, we can build our understanding of others and, like Dr. King, use that understanding to advocate for the well-being of all.
 Gotta Be Worth It/Pexels
Source: Gotta Be Worth It/Pexels

As we recognize the life and contributions of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the anniversary of his birth, it is fitting to note his incredible empathy. While all of us are capable of living an empathic life, my research has found it is noteworthy to find strong empathy in public figures. We know that power has a way of dulling empathy and thus people in powerful positions are often blind to the struggles and needs of others. Dr. King had a different kind of power, though—he had the power to bring people together empathically.

What contributes to someone like Dr. King’s empathy? Such empathy is often built on life experiences that impact them deeply and draw them in to understand the lived experiences of others. Martin Luther King knew firsthand the limitations caused by discrimination and marginalization. He drew on his life experiences to shape his advocacy. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered from the top of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, his words made clear his personal connection to other people’s lived experiences, as well as his own family’s lived experiences:

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. … I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a 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.”*

Part of the greatness of Dr. King was that he felt the anguish and pain of persecution for his own people, but could translate that to others who did not personally live that reality. He was a great orator, but more than that he could help his audiences feel the needs of others. I was just a child when I heard Martin Luther King speak. Although I was too young to understand the impact of his speech, I remember the crowd. Strangers, different races, were holding hands and singing. I knew from my parents’ reactions that this was special. Using my understanding of empathy today, I can see that the hundreds of people standing in that park that day were feeling connected, even though they were strangers.

That is a great ability, to guide others who were not personally treated in oppressive ways to see and feel the oppression that impacts others who may be different but are deserving of just treatment. To bring people together to care and want to make social change is a gift and a skill that is forged through life experiences and the empathic ability to share those feelings. Dr. King humanized all through his empathic abilities. We may not be able to build empathy as broadly and deeply as Dr. King, but we can honor his memory by trying to use empathy in all our smaller day-to-day interactions. I wish for all of us a bit more empathy on this Martin Luther King holiday.


*Note: Martin Luther King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech is still compelling today. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend spending 15 minutes to watch it. See it on YouTube at:; read the text from:

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