Words Matter

Reading a beautifully conceived short story while visiting Atlanta’s museums to the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. this past weekend deepened my belief that visions are words that matter.

James McBride spins a fable about a slave father recounting to his son the four words a rather unusual angel gave to his barren mother before he was conceived to pass on to him:   

And the words was these: here…thenceforward…forevermore…free.  God favors the righteous. He favors us with these words!....Just words, passed from one ear to the next!....Them four words just linger in my mind. They floats about me from day to day. Just four words they is. But powerful enough. –From Fish Man Angel by James McBride, published in Five-Carat Soul

As McBride imagines this story, a heart-weary Abraham Lincoln overhears the father and later weaves these four words into the Emancipation Proclamation thus fulfilling their promise.

Touring the King national historic sites in Atlanta immerses you in the powerful words King shared through his sermons, speeches and writing, often in his own remarkable voice. You hear again the words of his vision for civil rights, peace and economic justice for all poor people. His words were powerful enough to inspire remarkable acts of nonviolent resistance. They are words that still float in our national conscience as a promise yet to be fulfilled.

King’s words linger in our minds in ways that quips cast off in 144 characters via Twitter or in soundbites playing to lead the next news cycle never will. His words appeal to our better nature and summon our courage.

One recurring question people of conscience ask themselves is whether they would risk what the Freedom Riders or the young children who marched in Birmingham and into segregated schools were willing to risk. They were remarkable patriots who believed this country should be great for all people.

You may not have the courage to take body blows for justice. Few people do. But you can put forward a better vision of what your organizations and communities can and should be. If you are a leader, at least be willing to ask what can be done here and now to create a better world.  

Loose those words in your world and live into their power to change lives and history for the better. Let the words pass from one ear to the next until they prove powerful enough indeed.