Sometimes the legacy of a legend like Martin Luther King, Jr. is overwhelming. His words, his defiance, his righteousness, his dreams. I am haunted by his words and his uplifting vision for our country. He inspires us all to be and do better in order to realize our full potential as a nation. (A challenge we continue to strive to accomplish.) Today, I will listen to MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech and be inspired. Tomorrow, I will attempt to live up to the truth in his words but will feel I have failed. Perhaps I need to think in smaller terms.
Behind King’s grandness were small gestures that he used with great impact. He stood, he walked, he sat, he spoke, he linked arms. He wrote a letter from a jail that empowered its readers to action for generations to come. Simple actions and words can lead to great impact.
I visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, several years ago where King and his father served as the pastor. I was surprised at its size—compact and modest. I had expected an arena-sized church would be required to contain a man like King. But then I imagined how his voice must have boomed inside those tight walls. I visited King’s childhood home just a few blocks away, also modest. I imagined all of the books he consumed inside the small living room and the conversations at their humble dining table. I imagined the concise but consistent words of encouragement from his mother or father.
Small gestures with good intent can change a heart and change the world.
My mother was a master of small gestures. The unexpected card in the mail with a few words of encouragement—or even better, a photo of a special memory we shared. The knowing look across the room meant to say, “Buck up, little camper” or maybe, “I see you.” Cooking my favorite meal for no reason (well, cooking any meal, I’ve learned, is no small gesture!) The way she could look you right in the eyes and with a lilt to her smile tell you, with or without words, how much you matter in this world. How she could break out in song (off-key every time) to make you laugh or sing along and feel loved in the silliness of the moment. She had a deep capacity to empower with the smallest gesture.
I once attended a writing session on the power of gestures in scene-building and character development. The smallest gesture can reveal the emotion of a scene in much clearer terms than even dialogue. Considering so much of human communication is non-verbal, the gesture can be a mighty tool. A character clenching her teeth while trying to remain calm during a discussion with an annoying acquaintance could tell the reader much more than a tantrum of words. A child putting his hands over his ears while being berated by a bully could tear at our heartstrings.
While gestures can convey so much in the smallest of ways, I also believe that words matter, regardless of how small or seemingly inconsequential. I was recently at an intense meeting with much on the agenda to accomplish. A colleague approached me during a break and relayed how she appreciated something I’d said. Yet, her words of appreciation meant so much to me. Another time when I stood at the pharmacy counter holding back tears from an excruciating ear infection, the lady who rang me up simply squeezed my hand and said, “We’re going to take care of you.” And once, after a string of failures at work, my mentor simply said, “You gotta get your mojo back,” giving me permission to fail and then claw my way back.
I suppose the power of Martin Luther King, Jr’s gestures were found in the context. The simple act of sitting down at a lunch counter is much more complex when understanding the context and the risk of that act for a Black person in the 1960s Jim Crow South. Gestures in the face of risk or ridicule in order to highlight an injustice are simple but profound.
Words and gestures meant to heal or inspire, regardless of the size, matter. To the heart. To relationships. To a nation. To anyone who might lead or write or seek to empower others. And that’s all of us.