In 2021, what ode can we write, what words can we say that will adequately honor the legacy of civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
We can talk about the basic facts of his life– that he was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and was descended from ministers and farmers, that he attended Morehouse College in the tradition of his father and maternal grandfather, that he earned his doctorate at Boston College and married Coretta Scott in 1953.
But it all seems inadequate when compared to what he really meant to history.
We can remember that moment in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama– where King was serving as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church– when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested. This was the second incident of its kind and the catalyzing event that led to the 365-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.
And it was this moment that brought him from a very gifted pastor to a global symbol of the fight for equality and civil rights.
We can stop and ponder what it meant to walk to work or to the grocery store or to church, regardless of the distance for one full year. That meant getting up early and staying up late and enduring threats along the way.
King said of the boycott, “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”
Of course King was not wrong, the courts moved to end segregation of the buses in Montgomery, and in the backwards glance of history, it is so easy to see the glorious change this moment brought to the world, and so easy to forget what he and others went through to get there. King was arrested and his house was bombed during the boycott, and as we know, he would go on to pay larger and larger prices for his activism including surviving a knife attack, a total of 29 arrests and eventually, he would pay the ultimate price.
And through it all, he decided, as he said in 1967, to stick with love, “And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.”
From the sit-ins and non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 to his iconic “I have a dream” speech given at the March on Washington in August of that same year, King’s rhetoric and calls to action inspired a generation to no longer quietly acquiesce to the segregation and inequality of the past, but to fight for freedom from oppression.
At the March on Washington, he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
An amazing video of this speech can be seen here.
Had he lived, Dr. King would have celebrated his 92nd birthday this week, but sadly, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39. He once beautifully wrote:
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”Martin Luther King Jr.
I believe that despite all of the ways in which progress has just been too slow and systemic racism has gone on for far too long, that he would still, despite everything “stick with love.”
For more on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visit these resources: