Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Who We Are at the Core

By Ann Murtlow, United Way of Central Indiana President and CEO

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorial in Washington D.C. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to visit (post-pandemic, of course).


As you gaze upward 30 feet at Dr. King’s image, symbolically emerging from a mountain, you see 15 inscriptions set in stone from some of Dr. King’s most celebrated letters, sermons and speeches.


What you don’t see is a quote included on the original design. It read, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou proclaimed the paraphrased quote missed the intent of Dr. King’s full and selfless sentiment: If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. Amid this controversy, the quote was removed two years later.


That speaks to the heart of my reflection on this important day. Words matter. Facts matter. Context matters. Most importantly, our core values as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, matter.


Speaking of core values, when I read Dr. King’s words on this memorial, I think of a man with unbreakable convictions, nerves of steel, intense stamina to weather any storm, admiration for humanity, and a passion for lifelong learning and service to others.


We have similar shared, core values at United Way of Central Indiana. Our staff and board members strive to live, breathe and demonstrate inclusiveness, courage, accountability, respect and excellence. As an acronym, we call them our I-CARE values. What does that mean in practice? Allow me to use Dr. King’s words to illustrate.



“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.”



Spoken in 1969 at the march for integrated schools, Dr. King’s determination for equal rights and service to others speaks to all of us as human beings. At United Way, inclusiveness means we are committed to that “noble struggle for equal rights,” by staying true to our pledge for a more equitable community for every person.



“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”



At every turn in his lifetime, Dr. King faced threats and acts of violence. I admire his unbreakable courage “at times of challenge and controversy,” As a woman, I also greatly respect Coretta Scott King, his devoted spouse and partner. Even as a bomb exploded on their front porch during the Montgomery bus boycott, Mrs. King had the courage to stay, fearlessly raise their children, and support the movement.  At United Way, courage means we speak up, lean into discomfort, and do the right thing, even when it’s hard.



“We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”



I will show up prepared, and I do what I say I will do. That’s what we say at United Way. Being accountable for our own actions and holding others accountable is at our core. Dr. King was determined to work and fight for justice in our nation and hold accountable the leaders in our local and state systems that made promises they could not keep. As one historian wrote about Dr. King and accountability, “Holding elected officials accountable is no small task. It will take courage. It will take a willingness to be unpopular, mocked and scorned in some popular circles. Nonetheless, it is necessary.”



“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”



At United Way, respect means we value and embrace diversity. We are humble, kind and open-minded. Even though Dr. King’s original sentiment above is no longer on his national memorial, the words, for me, match perfectly with our core value of respect. Not much else matters in this world if we don’t have justice, peace and righteousness for all people.



“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. King earned a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College, a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from Boston University. As an undergrad, he wrote a piece for his campus newspaper at Morehouse, calling for education in our society to “train a person for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” I hear his passion when he insists, “intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” There is no greater truth than that. Which is why I am proud of United Way’s core value of excellence:  we will continuously learn and improve, and we will bring out the best of every person and of ourselves.


Today, I call on all of us to reflect on our core values, and act in service to our neighbors and our community in ways that matter. What could that service be? Here are a few ideas:


  • Read Robert Kennedy’s speech the night of Dr. King’s assassination and then visit the Landmark for Peace memorial sculpture In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the northside.
  • Gain more insight into Dr. King’s life. I like StoryCorps’ collection of voices who lived through the civil rights movement.
  • Stand up and advocate for a cause you believe in. Participate in the process. Make your voice heard!


Most importantly, define your core values. Live them every day to the best of your ability. And, as Dr. King directed us to do – make a career of humanity.