Today marks 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot as he stood on his balcony at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. The assassination sparked unrest around the country. The following week, riots broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities, often warranting the intervention of the National Guard.
Dr. King endured harassment, threats, beatings, and even bombings, but it never stopped his fight for justice and equality. He not only “had a dream” of a color-blind society, but through his actions, taught the world the values of unity, tolerance, and love. Yet, the struggles continue.
Today, we continue to see visible outbreaks of injustice. Hate crimes have risen. Immigrants who came to our land seeking a better life are being separated from their families; deported to a country they’ve never known. Gun violence has never been higher. Last year, according to data gathered by the Gun Violence Archive, 15,549 people were killed by guns in the United States. The problem is symbolized by both the Black Lives Matter Movement and March for Our Lives. Those with Black Lives Matter held nonviolent protests after last month’s police shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man killed by police officers in Sacramento.
Young people across the nation are continuing to carry forward Dr. King’s legacy as we saw when hundreds of thousands of youths took to the streets in the March for Our Lives. They are demanding justice; they are saying “enough is enough” to the gun violence epidemic. In doing so, they are carrying forward the legacy of Dr. King. I applaud the many courageous young Americans who exercised their First Amendment rights on March 24. It was so inspiring to see kids take charge and I hope everyone will listen to their message.
At its core, the Constitution is a promise of equality; the 14th Amendment prohibits states from "deny[ing] to any person ... the equal protection of the laws." Every person, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed, is guaranteed the same rights, privileges, and protections. The 14th Amendment enabled any group of Americans to turn to the Federal government if they faced discrimination and gave them the legal tools to demand redress. Without the 14th Amendment there could have been no Civil Rights Act in 1964 or Voting Rights Act in 1965. And, what about “birthright citizenship?” What would Martin Luther King’s stance have been on immigration? His writings and speeches give some credibility that King would have supported immigration and undocumented immigrants.
"To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor."
"Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality … "
It is evident that Dr. King’s work is unfinished – he saw the promised land of equality, but we have yet to reach it. The challenges that interrupted King in 1968 have brought us to where we are today – divided across racial lines with the government and its citizens constantly challenging one another. For as long as there are racism, sexism, ethnic phobias, and gender phobias, King’s dream is “a dream deferred.”
Yet, despite the persisting problems of inequality, we must not allow King’s positive message to be overshadowed by grief and struggle. He chose to dwell not on the issues that begot the journey, but on the destination ahead. I don’t know how he would feel if he could see where we are today. Would he be saddened by how little has changed, or would he be proud of how far we have come and how we are pushing onward? I tend to think both. True, institutional racism is dreadfully alive and well, but our youth are an inspiration. We’ve seen what they can achieve, and we can trust that they (or their ancestors) will bring about Martin Luther King’s dream – the promised land where “we are judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character.”
We can no longer ignore what is going on around us. On the 50th anniversary of King's death, let’s not only reflect on his life, but his dream. We should not allow his legacy and the lessons he taught us go unnoticed or fail to progress. To solve this nation’s racial and ethnic problems, we, as citizens, must rise above hateful politics and rhetoric; we must join forces to rid the blindness, bigotry, and injustice that exists. Until we open our hearts and minds to each other’s life experiences, America’s progress, as ‘one nation…with liberty and justice for all’ will never truly become a reality.
“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.