Aspiring to “Dangerous Unselfishness” in 2021
By Stacy Horth-Neubert, WLALA Foundation President
I recently finished the terrific podcast, White Picket Fence. In the series, host Julie Kohler, “unpacks how white womanhood in America has been constructed, how it’s evolved, and how it affects our politics.” I highly recommend listening. But what I want to focus on today is an aspiration, cited in the last episode, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put forth more than 50 years ago, and that particularly resonated with me as I reflected on the dumpster fire that was 2020: Dr. King implored us all to aspire to “dangerous unselfishness.” It is my hope that we can all aspire to dangerous unselfishness as we confront the continuing challenges facing our nation and the world in this new year, 2021.
It was the evening of April 3, 1968. Dr. King was in Memphis to organize protests in support of striking sanitation workers. Dr. King had been the subject of credible threats on his life that very day, and he would be assassinated the very next day. Many view the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech Dr. King gave that night as a sort of farewell, delivered at a time he knew his life was in danger. Yet, rather than focus on himself, Dr. King instead reflected on the deep divisions in our nation. And rather than despair at those divisions, Dr. King found happiness in seeing people rise up to heal them:
The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. … And [one] reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.
Dr. King’s words could easily have been delivered in 2020. Now, as then, the nation is sick. Now, as then, we have been forced to a point where we as a nation have to grapple with our problems. But rather than focus on the undeniable bad in the nation and the world, Dr. King instead focused on the good, and implored:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. … That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. … Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
2020 was an undeniably bad year. But it was also a year in which we saw brave civil servants risk their livelihoods and more to testify at the impeachment trial of the most powerful person in the world, the U.S. President. A year health care professionals and other essential service workers put their own self-interest aside to care for others. A year in which people in every state in our nation (and even around the world) rose up together to take a stand against racism. A year in which people of every political persuasion stood up for the rule of law and the integrity of our elections. And a year in which lawyers took up pro bono matters for those in need in record numbers. In other words, 2020 was a year in which many, many people demonstrated dangerous unselfishness.
2020 did its darnedest to strip us of our optimism. Yet Dr. King’s optimism did not fade, even in his darkest hour. That is why his words are as important and as inspirational today as they were more than 50 years ago. And that is why Dr. King’s call to action is as necessary in 2021 as it was in 1968:
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.
In setting our intentions for 2021, here is to hoping that more and more of us will heed Dr. King’s call, and as a nation we will continue to aspire to dangerous unselfishness.
WLALA Foundation President
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 Martin Luther King, Jr.,” I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.