Fifty years ago America was shaken by the news that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed cut down by a bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, cutting his life short. Today, I don’t know what we do with that information. It’s too brutal an occasion to raise it up as an anniversary, milestone, or any other kind of marker in time.
As the children of formerly enslaved people and the children of their former slavers seemingly share a moment of reflection, I fear they do so with an improper recollection of the facts. We’ve turned the life of Dr. King and the historic struggles of other freedom fighters into ornaments we touch on for comfort during black history month and a select few holidays throughout the year.
Dr. King didn’t live or die to be martyred or revered. He dedicated himself to challenging America to reconcile the brutal difference between its visionary ideals and its inhumane actions.
His focus was poverty (“As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars”), racism, and militarism. All these years later we battle raging income inequality, racialized outcomes in schools, courts, business; and a president who surrounds himself with a racially redundant cabinet of wealthy men who prize military and corporate investments over the needs of women, children, and families.
Fifty years after Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign sought to wage a campaign to end those very problems, we are dogged by them today. From what I’ve learned about his life I doubt he would want us to live in perpetual remembrance of pastimes while failing to improve upon the tools and strategies that made him effective. He was guided by faith, fixated on justice, and fiercely committed to action and confrontation that disrupts business as usual.
Ironically, its our young people, those born after he died, who are keeping the flame of human rights burning, through protest and intolerance of inequality.
I can’t think of a better way to honor Dr. King’s legacy.