The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday: Reflecting on a Leader, a Dreamer and a Friend
By Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William W. Cooper, Jr., Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations / Published January 10, 2017
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
In January 2008, I was a reserve chaplain completing a six-month tour at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. The tour was prompted by the high operations tempo at the base chapel and the fact that the Senior Protestant Chaplain had been deployed. In his absence, I supported the many religious groups and several diversity or community organizations that fell under his purview. One such organization was the base Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance Committee. After being asked to assist with the annual commemoration service, I eagerly agreed and offered my assistance in any way.
I had lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was fortunate to study Dr. King’s theology at Emory University. I was also a resident of the MLK National Historic Site for six years near Dr. King’s birth home on what is known as “Sweet” Auburn Avenue. Looking back, I think that my experience on Auburn Avenue helped me to see first-hand the importance of diversity and to realize that people from very different walks of life can truly come together and learn from one another. I also believe that I developed an appreciation for serving others and learned how service makes America great.
Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta, and even the nation immortalized him as a visionary leader and dreamer. Yet there was much more for me to learn, and that learning would come at Mountain Home AFB, from those who knew him as a friend.
Scores of people around the world know of Dr. King as a leader, and his great dream is perhaps one of the most well-known speeches of contemporary culture. However, there were far fewer people in 2008 and beyond, who knew Dr. King personally and could call him a friend.
One of those people was noted poet and Professor Nikki Giovanni. While visiting Idaho to lecture at a university, Ms. Giovanni accepted an invitation from an Airman to speak at Mountain Home about Dr. King. I was privileged to meet Ms. Giovanni. Because she had achieved a level of notoriety herself, many military members were interested in asking her questions about her life and experiences. Yet, when she was asked of her own accomplishments, she quickly stated, “I am here to speak about my friend, Dr. King.” She went on to speak fondly about Dr. King, and how she considered both him and his wife to be close friends.
Another person I met at Mountain Home AFB who called Dr. King a friend was Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles. In 1968, Rev. Kyles was a young pastor and Civil Rights leader from Memphis, Tennessee. He organized a march for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis that year and invited his colleague in the service of others and his friend, Dr. King, to lead the march. When the first march was unsuccessful due to violence, Dr. King decided to come back to Memphis and lead the march again. It was on this trip to Memphis that Dr. King was assassinated.
As the Keynote speaker for the 2008 Mountain Home AFB commemoration service, Rev. Kyles spoke of standing right next to Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at the very moment Dr. King was shot. He described in detail how he held his friend and comforted him in his final hour. Rev. Kyles also spoke about having the difficult task of calling Dr. King’s widow Coretta and giving her the news of her husband’s passing. Most important though, was that some 40 years after this life-changing event, the kind gentleman, Rev. Kyles, spoke glowingly of Dr. King as his friend.
As a service member, I listened to Rev. Kyles and saw similarities between his community service and serving in the nation’s military. I began to understand how his experience may have affected him and, how he embraced the sacred responsibility of honoring his friend in 1968 and over the next four decades. Rev. Kyles’ inspiring message to the audience on January 29, 2008, was to keep dreaming and to follow your dreams like Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright Brothers and Dr. King. However, what stood out to me the most was how positive Rev. Kyles was in general, about serving for the greater good and friendship. It was as if Rev. Kyles was a wingman with Dr. King, and he kept moving forward to complete a mission in spite of the obstacles and difficulties that he encountered.
In remembering and honoring his friend, Rev. Kyles embodied the core values of excellence, integrity and service before self that govern our service in the Air Force. Today, Rev. Kyles’ friendship with Dr. King allows me to not only think and see images of the great leader and dreamer, but also to see Dr. King as someone’s friend with a real voice that could be heard and give meaning to everyday life.
Rev. Kyles’ message further suggested to me that we are who we are and where we stand at a particular time, with or without a popular dream. Although not all human beings will become famous leaders or be recognized as gifted dreamers, I learned from Dr. King’s Wingman and friend that one’s value is not just based on fame or notoriety. The willingness to serve wherever one may be, and that example is what can have a true impact and lasting value. As Dr. King once said, “If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music… sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” On this year’s MLK holiday, I will reflect on the leader, the dreamer and friend.