Today, America will celebrate — if that’s the right word — Martin Luther King Day. Today, there are two generations of Americans who are too young to personally remember Dr. King as he led what would become known as the Civil Rights Movement.
A civil rights march through Memphis is held in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
I am not too young. I can recall Dr. King vividly from my childhood. As a black person, he was not a civil rights leader. He was my leader. I remember my father bringing home a copy of Time magazine with King on the cover. He had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was 1965. My father grew up in the segregated South, and he was amazed that King had won this great honor. He wanted us to keep that magazine as a memento. (It somehow got lost in the ensuing years.)
Today, Dr. King is widely revered by all Americans. When I was a child, I knew him as a figure of considerable controversy, reviled — not revered — by many white Americans. He was controversial for the tactics and achievements that are now granted as just and reasonable. He agitated, demonstrated and argued for equal rights for black Americans and for all Americans. As the hip-hop music producer Russell Simmons put it, in his own lifetime King was a “rebel.”
Dr. King was concerned not just with civil rights for black Americans but moral justice for all Americans. He criticized the Vietnam War. At the time he was killed, he was in Memphis in support of a sanitation workers demanding better pay. He was planning for Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. After Dr. King was shot and before his death was announced, I remember too seeing on television the powerful climax of the speech he had given just the night before. In some ways, that speech is more indelibly etched in my mind and memory than his more famous “I Have A Dream” speech of 1963.
I read later that King was exhausted that night, April 3, 1968. He begged off speaking but finally agreed to address the audience at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God. His final words are chilling to hear or read even today:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The next day, Martin Luther King was killed by an assassin’s bullet. He was just 39. Had he lived, he would have turned 81 on Jan. 15.