Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived a life of exemplary personal sacrifice in the face of the constant threat of violent reprisals, including sudden death.
He is synonymous with civil rights and the icon of the struggle of Black Americans for racial, economic, and social equality. He earns his place in history as one of the legendary rare human beings who really made a difference, really contributed to ours being a better world, by adhering to a belief in the transformative power of peaceful protest and other acts of love. He refused to hate. He is considered by most a genuine American hero whose lessons and actions have inspired the entire world.
The American civil rights movement led by leaders such as Dr. King evolved in the late 1950’s as the practices of racial segregation in the American South and the discrimination against blacks throughout the society reached intolerable levels. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist preacher and extraordinary orator, based his strategy for the advancement and eventual equality of Black Americans on the ideas and methods that had been successful for Mahatma Gandhi in India, centrally, the power of non-violent protest over violent revolutionary means. King’s oratory, encouraging an appeal to the white majority’s conscience and sense of basic decency, steered many away from the incendiary “by any means necessary” armed revolt rhetoric of the more militant leaders.
The pinnacle of Dr. King’s career as peacemaker and agent of change came during the 1963 March on Washington. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, addressing a quarter-of-a-million marchers, King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which has now taken its place in prominence in American history right alongside Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to end racial inequality by nonviolent means.
Dr. King refused to give up on the vision that was his “dream” to make America a land where black and white children could grow up together in peace and harmony as equals; but for that dream, he was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
In his last years, his focus spread to include the disgrace of American poverty. His speeches against the U.S. waging the war in Vietnam angered many of his liberal, patriotic supporters including the then President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson.
Remarkably, he would be only 86 years old today had he lived.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
— Martin Luther King
Legends are all too frequently born from violence and the circumstances of his death remain clouded in suspicions of broader conspiracy despite the immediate capture of his assassin. However, his legacy lives on and, like Gandhi, continues to grow and inspire countless generations of all colors around the world. Dr. King reminds us all to be the change in the world we want to see.