What Does Martin Luther King, Jr. Teach Us About Relationships
Updated: Feb 3
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time for us to reflect on what one man did for our nation and how we may continue his legacy. Dr. King was very concerned with relationships, and sought to see those relationships healed throughout the United States, and the world. His underlying principles and philosophies led him to fight for equal rights, unspeakably important work. Let’s not miss those underlying principles: dignity, justice, character, and love. You may not consider yourself an activist, but Dr. King’s words and values can still influence how you live your life and conduct yourself in all kinds of relationships.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a cup of coffee and a hamburger?”
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
Dr. Martin Luther King saw the value in each person and believed those people worthy of care and respect. Are you treating the people in your life with the same reverence? Are you polite to your neighbors and customer service workers? Are you empathetic and compassionate to those who are going through hard times?
What about those with whom you are romantically involved? Do you ghost those you have lost interest in? Are you using others to meet your needs or for your enjoyment, regardless of how it might hurt them? Are you setting boundaries to protect your partner’s feelings, and are you respecting the boundaries they have set to protect themselves?
“I want to suggest some of the things that should begin your life's blueprint. Number one...should be a deep belief in your own dignity. Your worth and your own somebodiness... Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”
Dignity doesn’t stop at how we treat other people. If all of humanity has value and worth, so do you. Don’t let others trample over you, use you, or push your boundaries. Know that you are worth having loving healthy relationships with people who respect and care for you. Dr. Martin Luther King believed that you are a person of incredible value, and so do we at HRT, and we hope you can see that for yourself as well. You are capable of great things, and deserve relationships that support you in those endeavors.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
King makes the case for relationship in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963. He stresses that we are all interconnected, and the bond we have to our fellow human matters. When others are mistreated, we miss out on living the full human experience of encountering that person as being fully human. When others are denied the dignity human beings deserve, we all suffer, though in less miserable or tangible ways than those who are being denied their humanity. The result? We should care about injustice and the ways others are treated whether that is down the hall or across the globe. We should strive to treat others with dignity and respect, no matter how different they may be from us. We can honor and learn from anyone.
"Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."
"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."
Because all people are connected in their common humanity, an individual’s character is of the utmost importance. When we work on ourselves and seek to be the best we can be, we are ensuring a better relationship with everyone around us: our families, friends, partners, neighbors, and community. No one is perfect, stronger character is always something to be working toward, but ask yourself am I headed toward the person I would like to be? before entering into a romantic relationship. If not, how do you become that person? What are some character flaws you see in yourself that you would like to work on? How can you embrace a time of singleness to grow and be a better neighbor to those around you?
Maybe you find it challenging to stand up for what’s right in times of difficulty. That is certainly a goal you can work toward and a part of yourself you can seek to improve. Maybe you are unsure of what you should be standing up for. Those are concerns you should explore before entering a romantic relationship, so that the two of you can grow in your character together. Character also applies to the people we are dating, admire, and surround ourselves with. Do the people you admire have the boldness and fortitude to stand up for their convictions? Do they do so with gentleness and peace? Even when it’s challenging?
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."
Last, but certainly not least, Dr. King’s words and work were marked with love. He loved humanity and believed in a brighter future for all; he hoped for it. Despite the terrible persecutions he experienced and all of the injustice he witnessed, he continued to fight for a better world for all. Hate, mistreatment, and cruelty in return was not the way to bring about true change, but demonstrations of radical and unconditional love will change the world. Martin Luther King stood up for himself, while displaying the kind of character he wanted to see from others.
Relationships require unconditional love to last. No one is perfect, and people are always going to mess up. We need to have grace and forgiveness in those times, especially knowing that those who love us will need to do the same in return. Ultimately, this boils down to the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Display the kind of love, character, and respect you hope to receive. If we all did this, the world would be an even more amazing place.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s work is monumental, and his words should not be taken lightly. His words can spur us to abundant action and great social change, as they should, but they also have major implications for how we ought to live our daily lives, in large ways and small ways. Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! I hope you live in his legacy!
To see where we found our King quotes and to read more of what Dr. King has said, use these links: