When one considers that it has been almost 49 years since Martin Luther King was assassinated, it is easy to understand why so many of our fellow Americans today have so little understanding of who he was and what he accomplished.
Every school child for the past generation knows well the story of Martin Luther King. But an elementary school textbook cannot truly convey the extent to which he brought about real change in our country. To anyone under the age of 50, Martin Luther King is just another historical figure. But for those of us who can recall the 1960s, a time when racial segregation prevailed throughout half of our country and overt racism throughout the other half, Martin Luther King stands as one of the great leaders in American history, a man whose stirring words and perseverance in his cause changed forever the historical trajectory of race relations in America, a subject that some historians refer to as the Original Sin of the American experience.
However, as much as things have changed for the better in the past 50 years in terms of racial equality in our society, it also is clear that we still have a long way to go before can say that all Americans are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, as Dr. King famously put it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
It is clear that there is a movement in our country that seeks to take away many of the hard-fought gains of the past 50 years, and that there is a Congress, a Supreme Court, and a now a President who are happy to oblige in this endeavor. The shootings and deaths of African-Americans while in police custody that have shocked all of us in the past few years are just the tip of the iceberg. Much more significant have been the judicial decisions that have stripped away key provisions of the voting rights act, the disproportionate treatment and incarceration of minorities for drug-related offenses, and the voter ID laws and gerrymandering in many states that, in the words of a federal court in North Carolina, attain with surgical precision the goal of preventing people of color from being fairly represented in government at all levels.
“What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do?” we often ask ourselves. We can’t say for sure, but we do know that he that as much as King accomplished in his lifetime, he would be the first to understand that his work for which he gave his life still is far from done — and we can only hope that his spirit and courage can continue to inspire this and future generations to bring about a world in which all persons are treated with dignity and respect.