A few months ago, the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
It was a reminder to us all that while the nation has made great strides toward his vision of equality and justice, that work isn’t done yet. The country has achieved considerable progress toward expanded opportunities and racial equality since that day in 1963, yet it continues to face challenges in making King’s dream a reality for every American.
Today is another day to remember and honor King’s legacy.
The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and “day of service,” the only federal holiday so designated, aims to be “a day on, not a day off.” News stories in today’s World-Herald tell of Midlanders who’ve taken that idea to heart through their volunteer efforts.
King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’ ” What he did for others moved the nation forward so far, it is difficult to comprehend that his accomplishments came in a span of less than 13 years.
In 1955, King was recruited to serve as spokesman for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. In 1957, he became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, providing new leadership to the civil rights movement. In 1963, he led a coalition of groups in a nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Ala., then called “Bombingham” and the “most segregated city in America.” Later that year came his speech to 250,000 marchers in Washington.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the same year Congress approved the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1968, his life was ended by an assassin’s bullet at age 39.
Yet during that brief period, the King Center notes, “African-Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced.”
In his speech accepting the Nobel Prize, King wondered why he was being honored at a time when the fight to end racial injustice was intense, when peaceful protest was met with fire hoses, when 40 churches in Mississippi had been burned.
He saw it as much more than a personal honor:
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. ... I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”
That vision is worth remembering today.