Celebrating a Legacy: Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. is the face of the Civil Rights movement in the US during the 50s and 60s. Although much work remains to be done to create a just and equitable society, let us celebrate this gifted pioneer by pausing to remember his tireless efforts in uniting people behind this cause.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”
MLK was a galvanizer who spurred black Americans into action, chiding them for their passivity, inspiring them to join forces and work as a unit. As individuals their influence was small, but en masse they were a force to reckon with, as the Montgomery Bus Boycott proved. He convinced many Americans, black and white, that ending segregation was a righteous cause.
His visionary leadership was critical to the success of the Civil Rights Movement and ending segregation. Although many, like Malcolm X, thought his approach too passive, his nonviolence built a bridge even reluctant politicians could cross.
Consider the events around his assassination: his was tireless in promoting justice for African Americans. In the spring of 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. came to town to support the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike for the third time in less than three weeks. The first time he addressed a rally of 15,000. On the second visit he led a march that got cancelled when it turned violent. His last appearance was an effort to restore decorum to the strike. The night before his assassination he was scheduled to speak. Feeling unwell, he asked Ralph Abernathy to take his place at the podium, but in the end, MLK could not disappoint the people hungry for his words that never failed to comfort and inspire.
A gifted orator, his speeches were filled with biblical allusions about struggle and justice. Black Americans were like Israel – slaves in Egypt who escaped only to face peril after peril in the wilderness. MLK was a type of Moses, leading African Americans out of centuries of bondage into a new era of freedom. But they were still in the wilderness of protests, strikes, and boycotts, suffering threats, physical attacks and jail time for trumped up charges.
The night before his assassination he spoke about the journey extemporaneously. He told the crowd,
“I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
He could not know how truly he spoke of viewing the land of promise, yet his own impending death blocking the entry. The next day, April 4, 1968, he was on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, waiting for a ride to dinner, when he was shot. He died an hour later. A sniper’s bullet cut him down but could not stop the movement.
Student sit-ins, the March on Washington, and many speeches had the impact MLK labored for, producing a groundswell of support. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment. MLK’s legacy of peaceful protest changed laws and crumbled once-impenetrable barriers. He was assassinated before he could realize his dream of equality and opportunity for all.
The mighty work to “let freedom ring” is not done. As we reflect on his historic impact on civil rights, each of us might ask if we are building up or tearing apart the Promised Land. Will we act with firm conviction yet nobility of spirit to promote justice?