You would probably have to be over the age of fifty to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was alive, but age doesn’t matter in order to understand why he was — and still is — an important person in our nation’s history. Growing up on the outskirts of a city with a large black population, I was aware of Dr. King’s work as a part of the daily news coverage in the 1960’s as we watched the march on Selma, the water hoses, the riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Toledo, and heard the pleas for justice, equality, tolerance, and brotherhood during the March on Washington in 1963 and in every city where Dr. King spoke. And I knew that he was an inspiration to a lot of people outside of the black community; anyone who faced injustice based on their skin color or their sexual orientation or any other reason knew what he was talking about. In 1968 I was fifteen years old and wondering whether my attraction to other boys was just me or were there others who faced bullying and discrimination for the same reason. In some small way I knew that Dr. King was speaking to me, too.
I remember very well the night of April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was murdered. I was a freshman at boarding school, just back from spring break, when the dorm master, who was also the school chaplain, called us into the common room and announced with both sadness and anger that “They’ve killed Martin Luther King.” He didn’t explain who the “they” were, but we knew what he meant, and two months later, on the day that Bobby Kennedy was buried at Arlington, James Earl Ray was arrested. Ray plead guilty and went to his grave claiming he was part of a conspiracy, but no one else was ever arrested or came forward to back up his claim. But when the chaplain said “they,” he was talking not just about accessories to a crime but to the attitude of a lot of people in America then — as now — who still believe that Dr. King was a communist, an agitator, a rabble-rouser, and a threat to their way of life. And when Dr. King died, there were a lot of people who thought that at long last those uppity agitators would know what they were in for if they kept up their nonsense.
But of course the dream did not die, and in spite of the tumult and anger that came with the loss there came a sense of purpose borne from the realization that if Dr. King had to die for his cause, it must be a powerful cause that touches more than just the lives of black citizens. What we take for granted today in terms of equality and voting rights is still under threat; human nature does not change that quickly in forty or fifty or a hundred years. Dr. King, like the men who wrote the Constitution, knew that they were starting something that would outlive them and their generations; all they had to do was give it a good start.
If you don’t remember Dr. King when he was alive, you are certainly aware of his life and his legacy, and I don’t just mean because you might get the day off on his birthday in January. Regardless of your race, your religion, your sex, or your occupation, Dr. King’s work has changed it, either during your lifetime or setting the stage for it now. And no matter what history may record of his life as a man, a preacher, a father, a husband, or a scholar, it is hard to imagine what this country — and indeed the world — would be like had he not been with us for all too brief a time.
Originally published April 4, 2008.