After being arrested in Birmingham, Ala., the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a long, respectful letter to his detractors on the scraps of paper he was able to get. “As the weeks and months unfolded we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise,” he wrote to the Alabama clergy who had denounced his presence there, describing his unsuccessful negotiations with the town’s white power brokers. “Like so many experiences of the past we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.”

Few American political figures have earned the status of King. But as we celebrate his life, let’s not forget his years of hard work in the difficult, time-consuming nitty gritty of civil disobedience. This year especially, as civil liberties are being eroded and people all over the political spectrum are feeling disenfranchised from the political system, events celebrating MLK Day offer us the chance to look to King not only as a symbol of our hopes but as an instructor of how to bring them about–take a day on, not a day off.

King left us instructions. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he laid out the four steps of non-violent civil disobedience: First, collect the facts to determine if injustice is being done. Second, negotiate. The third step he called “self-purification,” a process of asking whether one’s motives, goals and stamina are sufficient to face the consequences of step four: direct action.

  • Students from UNC will discuss these strategies and other legacies of the Civil Rights Movement at “The Movement Continues: A Forum on Student Activism” at UNC’s Toy Lounge next Thursday, Jan. 22 at 7:30 p.m.

  • According to Fred Battle, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP, all of this year’s King Day celebrations in Chapel Hill are about getting out the vote. A special Monday service at 10 a.m. at the First Baptist Church on North Roberson Street will honor Rebecca Clark, a Chapel Hill resident who’s been getting residents out to the polls for decades.

  • After the service comes Chapel Hill’s annual march along Franklin Street, ending with a rally in front of the U.S. Post Office.

  • Meanwhile in Raleigh, marchers will meet in front of the Capitol Building at 10 a.m. to march.

  • Durham’s march will begin Saturday at 11 a.m. on Ramseur Street downtown, heading toward the Hayti Heritage Center.

  • The annual oratorical contest Monday at 6 p.m. at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Tate Turnery Kurault Auditorium is a competitive look at the consequences of political disengagement: Contestants address the notion that the lack of political involvement of America’s youth inadvertently destroys their society.

  • UNC’s events continue into next week, with a keynote speech by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, whose tenure as president of Spelman College in the late 1980s brought it to the top of national college rankings.

  • Speeches at Duke also promise to rouse the mind and spirit. Raleigh attorney and former state House Speaker Dan Blue lectures at the Duke Clinical Research Institute at 2 p.m. on Friday. On Sunday, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree (Anita Hill’s attorney in the Clarence Thomas case) speaks at Duke Chapel at 4 p.m.

  • The highlight of Monday’s events at Duke is “Move on Up a Little Higher: Sermons and Songs by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson,” at 7 p.m. in Reynolds Theater.

  • Cary will host a festival full of King events, beginning Friday with a vocal concert at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church.

  • Children are welcome at the Community Expo on Saturday, also at the church, from 12-3 p.m. Live music performances, storytelling, author readings and kids’ activities will culminate in a 2 p.m. rally commemorating King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

    To understand King’s dream, we have to take our heads out of the clouds. His life’s work exemplifies the moral imperative and inevitability of seemingly impossible change. The impossible (even the unelectable) must come to pass–but only if we lay ourselves on the line.