In three days, on January 21, the nation prepares for the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, for his second term. At the same time, we will pause throughout the country to honor a man whose efforts were instrumental in many ways in this historic inauguration. January 21 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a holiday marked every year on the third Monday in January since 1986, and since 2000, recognized in all 50 states.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist preacher. He followed his father’s profession, becoming a pastor in a church in the south, ministering to the needs of a then-segregated black community. The Montgomery bus boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white male passenger, King became the leader of the national civil rights movement, and in 1957 helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in moving the cause of civil rights forward in the United States, and honored around the world, he is best remembered for his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, before an audience of 250,000 civil rights supporters at the close of the March on Washington. After the 1963 event, King turned his attention to a focus on poverty and the war in Vietnam, which he vehemently opposed.
In Memphis, Tennessee to support that city’s garbage workers in their strike for better wages and working conditions, King was slain by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. His death touched off riots around the country in some of the worst racial violence the country has ever seen.
King’s words in Washington in 1963 are as appropriate today as they were then, given the economic and social problems plaguing the nation over 150 years after the end of the Civil War. We are still a nation of haves and have-nots, with millions going to bed at night with empty stomachs, without shelter, and deprived of the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ The promissory note written by the Founding Fathers when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is still due for many. As King said, “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir to.” We should take careful note of what he said after that, though. “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds . . . let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
His dream, the American dream, remains largely a dream. To honor his legacy, it is up to us, each of us, to continue to work to make that dream a reality. Even though we might have to face the ‘difficulties of today and tomorrow,’ we should still cling to that dream, a dream that is ‘deeply rooted in the American dream.’