Hemingway's was one way of looking at courage. But when I consider historical figures who exemplify this quality, my thoughts turn instead to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. This was a group that included some well-known women and men, as well as many more ordinary adults and children.
These people repeatedly put themselves in danger to secure basic rights of citizenship for African Americans. They knew they might be dragged off to jail, beaten, attacked with firehoses or vicious dogs, and possibly killed. They knew they might see their churches bombed and their houses burned to the ground. Still, they broke the rules of segregation on interstate buses; they sat down at lunch counters; they marched for freedom; they went to school. Whether they possessed the courage to do these things barely entered their thoughts. Of course they did. They might have felt fear, but they were doing what was right.
And that's the key. Courage--real courage--carries moral weight. The individual acts not for personal validation but because his or her deeds serve a greater purpose.
On April 3, 1968, King was in Memphis, prepaing to lead a march of striking sanitation workers, African Americans who were seeking a decent wage. When he spoke that night, he seemed to foresee his own death; yet there was no question that he would act. He talked about courage, although he never used the word. He called it getting "caught up with that which is right" and being willing to sacrifice for it. The march took place the following Monday, but without Martin Luther King. As history has recorded, he was assassinated on April 4, at the motel where he was staying.
We have all benefited because he walked among us, and I hope we will remember his courageous example. As he said on the eve of his death, "only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."