Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a balcony outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The assassination came a day after MLK gave the amazing – and uniquely prophetic – “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple supporting workers in the Memphis Sanitation Strike. While it isn’t as universally remembered as his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, it still resonates today. It should certainly hold more resonance when we consider the present state of this country, and the world.
What MLK Stood For
When most people think of Dr. King, they recall vivid images of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. They remember the fight against racial segregation, the call for non-violent protest against what often manifested in severe violence against activists, protesters, and innocent civilians just trying to live their lives on a daily basis. They may have memories, real or ones conjured up in images from textbooks or across the Internet, of men and women locking arms as they marched through the streets in search of equality in a country that overtly guarantees it for all – yet routinely fell short of that promise. They may remember the riots after MLK was shot and killed.
What they may not know however is that Dr. King was about so much more than that. While his legacy will remain deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement and the landmark 1965 legislation that at least changed the law, if not people’s hearts, towards the end of his life he started to look at a bigger picture that encompassed many of the ills our society faced, and still faces today. He opposed the Vietnam War, which in many minds of the time was a necessary evil to contain the perceived threat of Communism but in hindsight (for most of us) was a misguided policy governed by irrational fear that preyed upon the social inequality so prevalent in America. Put simply, he saw how the vast majority who served stood in lower socio-economic strata, while the wealthy found ways to avoid service for dubious reasons. He thought that a wrong our collective soul should not bear.
MLK also fought against poverty in general. Contrary to some people’s views that those who succeed somehow earned their way to the top (some do, but a great deal of wealth is inherited and passed on from generation to generation), Dr. King saw that while Nature hands out talent on an equal basis, it doesn’t hand out opportunity quite as uniformly. Just before he died, he along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began the Poor People’s Campaign to highlight inequality and address it through policy and social change. This was not an African American thing. This was an everyone thing.
Why Dr. King Remains Important Today
In the current climate, it is easy to argue that the vast majority of the lessons Dr. King brought to us in the 1960’s have been lost or are in danger of being lost. It wasn’t just him either, for leaders of all races, genders and walks of life through the years have in their own ways tried to bring about change in the how we view our fellow citizens, how we live and learn together, and how we support the collective goal – stated in the Constitution – of promoting the general welfare of all people. There have been many successes, but there have also been a great many critical failures, and the trend doesn’t feel headed in the right direction.
There is hope in the younger generations, who see bad when bad shows up, tend to be colorblind, don’t care about gender, and don’t see wealth as an entitlement. But it doesn’t take genius to look at the dialogue to realize that all is not well under the American sun. We are more divisive, especially along racial, gender, and political even spiritual lines. We are more prone to vitriol and violence than we are, as Dr. King promoted, willing to use peaceful forms of debate and protest. We live in a world where our leaders actively use division rather than compromise and unity to advance agendas that serve the few, rather than the many or the whole of society. And we keep voting them back in like they too are entitled to the chairs in which they sit.
MLK used the untapped energy of the frustrated, the disenfranchised, the compassionate, and the noble to get leaders to listen, and then to change. He didn’t isolate or segregate. He included anyone who was willing to fight for a better sense of tomorrow than they experienced today. Because of that, the loss of fifty years ago should still sting, because there have been many who have tried, but few who have succeeded in taking up that mantle and producing real, meaningful change.
Where We Go From Here
The world still needs the Dr. Kings of history to stand up and challenge the status quo. We need to listen to and take to heart the lessons he brought to the forefront and cause change to how we lead today. When it is all said and done our legacy isn’t going to be our wealth, or our perceived power. It is going to be, as a nation and as individuals, in how we treated our fellow humans – all of them – and what kind of world we leave for our children. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw that. As we commemorate with solemnity the day of his passing, let us try to remember that his message wasn’t just a moment in time, but a lesson for all future generations to be inspired by.