When one considers that it has been almost 52 years since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while he was standing on a balcony in a motel room in Memphis, where King was staying while supporting striking city trash collection workers, 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 Dr. 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 was lawful throughout half of our country and a stealthy racism prevailed throughout the other half, Martin Luther King stands out as one of the great leaders in American history, a man whose stirring words and perseverance to 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 52 years in terms of racial equality in our society, it also is clear that we still have a long way to go before it can be said, as Dr. King famously put it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
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 six decades, and that there are some members of Congress, a majority of the 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 disparate funding for education in urban areas compared to the wealthier suburbs, criminal laws that lead to 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 do if he were alive today?” we often ask ourselves. We can’t say for sure, but we do know that although King accomplished much in his lifetime, he would be the first to understand that the 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, regardless of the color of their skin or national origin, are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.