Nearly half a century has passed into history since the assassination of Martin Luther King. Today, America looks back on the life that was snuffed out – supposedly by a ne’er-do-well named James Earl Ray – and tries once more to make sense of the man and his mission.
Google Dr. King and you will find him memorialized contradictorily as both a saint and a sinner, as a radical agitator and as a Nobel Peace Prize winning patriot.
But nobody denies he was among America’s most influential historical figures.
I was just 34 years old when Dr. King was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee back in April 1968. He was five years older than I.
Think of all he could have achieved if he had been allowed to go on living.
I suppose we will never know why he was murdered. I can think of no reason in this world that a 40-year-old white fugitive would seek out and murder a black preacher he had never met in his life – and might never even have heard of.
But I have a better idea of his reason for living. In a tape played at his funeral, he said, ‘‘I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others’’
And his immortal “I have a dream” spells out his commitment to that mission.
Today, as this nation is torn anew by racial conflicts and blighted by persistent economic injustice, Americans – black, white and everyone else – would best honor Dr. King’s memory by recalling his message of brotherhood, his plea for peace, his dream of acceptance and forgiveness.
But that does not mean abandoning the battle for social justice. American society has changed for the better in the past half century, but there’s a lot of work left to be done. And powerful elements are resolutely engaged in trying to block – and undo – that progress.
As Dr. King reminded us:
We have … come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now…. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy …. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
He leaves today’s Americans with the troubling question: If not now, when? If not us, who?