What's the meaning of the Martin Luther King Jr quote below?

What's the meaning of the Martin Luther King Jr quote below?

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.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood as a leader for the oppressed during the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged the nation to transform America into a land of equality for all people—not just a select group. In many places in the country at that time (and not just in the...

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood as a leader for the oppressed during the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged the nation to transform America into a land of equality for all people—not just a select group. In many places in the country at that time (and not just in the South), laws were in place that discriminated against African Americans specifically and didn't allow them to fully participate in American society. King urged whites citizens to see the inherent injustice in these actions and to work toward a nation of racial unity.

This quote, then, is particularly meaningful for the white citizens who found themselves in a place of relative comfort during this era. King is saying that character is judged not by what people choose to do when times are easy (and there is little conflict) but by what they choose to do when they spot injustice.

Courageous people are those who leave a place of personal comfort and intentionally choose to step into a place of conflict on behalf of others in need. It also matters how people engage with others in the midst of such conflict; those with good character will treat others with respect, will not fall victim to hatred, and will move a conversation forward. A strong advocate of peaceful protests, King believed in maintaining composure and in maintaining respectful composure at all times.

Since King was also a preacher, he likely based this quote on several Biblical principles:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. (2 Peter 1:5-8)

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)

These guiding principles provide the context needed to lead effectively in positions of conflict while maintaining good moral character.

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What King means by this is that it's only in times of trouble and hardship that we discover the true nature of someone's character; that it is only in times of adversity that we find out what we're really made of. This insight is undoubtedly gleaned from King's extensive involvement in the civil rights movement. For years the movement had struggled to overcome the deep-seated prejudice of society and force the issue of civil rights to the very top of the political agenda. Throughout that time, King and others within the movement faced violence, threats, intimidation, and regular periods of imprisonment. Yet throughout it all, throughout all those years of "challenge and controversy," those most dedicated to the cause stood firm, unshakeable in their conviction that they were doing the right thing and that they would one day prevail.

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Martin Luther King Jr. said these words in the last speech he gave before he was assassinated. In the speech, he seems aware that his life is soon to end. He says that the worth ("measure") of any person lies in the courage they show in continuing to stand up for what they believe when the going gets tough. It's easy to mouth the right sentiments when you are safe and comfortable, but harder to stand up for them when you might suffer or even have to die for them. It's hard not to interpret this speech as the 39-year-old King speaking about himself. He knew his work was controversial as he spoke out for the unity of all people, the equality of blacks and whites, and against the Vietnam war, yet he went on with his scheduled speeches, showing that he was a man of true courage. It would have been easy to hide out and not speak his truth at this time of threat. 

In this same speech, he says that like anyone else, he wishes to live for a long time, but also says that a long life is not the most important thing. It's more important for him to deliver his message of freedom, even if he has to die for it, and he does so by telling his audience that he has been to the top of the mountain and seen the promised land. Because of that, he does not fear any man. His words act to encourage others to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means dying. 

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Martin Luther King, Jr. is best known as the main leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.  During the movement, things were difficult for African Americans.  The idea of rising up against a system that had oppressed them was not a comfortable one.  But King is saying in this quote that this is exactly the sort of situation where you find out what you are made out of.  What he is saying is that it is easy to handle life when things are comfortable and convenient.  How you handle that sort of life says nothing about your character.  What really shows your character is how you act when times are bad.  If you stand up for what is right, even if it's hard, you have a lot more character than if you refuse because you don't want to deal with the "challenge and controversy."

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