Remembering MLK and what his message means 50 years later

By Ruby Van Dyk || Staff Writer 

On April 6th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He was in Memphis, Tennessee rallying to support striking sanitation workers who had been protesting their unsafe working conditions. Dr. King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray, while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. King was 39 years old.

At the age of 39, Dr. King had become a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, promoting a message of nonviolence and civil disobedience. A preacher, King became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. With the help of the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia and helped organize a variety of nonviolent protests throughout the 60’s. Most famously, Dr. King delivered his celebrated “I have a Dream Speech” in 1963 at the March on Washington which he helped organize as well. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts in combating racism through nonviolence.

Many of the marches that King organized were met with violence, but nevertheless, he and his supporters persisted. Inspired by Ghandi, King had a firm belief in nonviolence and civil disobedience and, as he persisted, his message soared. He was an instrumental figure not only in many of the most crucial civil rights protests and gatherings, but in the passage of important legislation as well.

The reaction to King’s death extended around the globe, reverberating in every city in the United States as well as other countries. The outrage that accompanied his assassination sparked riots, protests, and unrest in many cities. However, the widespread mourning of King’s death also was key in the passage of civil rights legislation including The Fair Housing Act which became the final significant civil rights legislation of the era.

Now, 50 years later we are still fighting for many of the things that Dr. King fought for himself, including the equitable treatment of others and living up to the true meaning of our Constitution. Especially in the current political climate, with a president who has outright advocated for the mistreatment of minorities and has pushed an unconstitutional vision of America, it seems clear to me that we are still far from living up to the vision and message of Dr. King.

As we continue to struggle with issues as a nation, King’s legacy and words apply to so many issues we face. Whether it be immigration, which he addressed in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and in which he declared that “anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds,” or simply acting justly and fairly, which he addressed while speaking to college students. “The time is always right to do what is right,” he said.

King and his message have a special place in the hearts and minds of many people, including my own. Growing up, my Dad, a political science professor with a speciality in civil rights, brought me to march in my small town’s MLK Day parade each year. I remember being eight years old and watching my dad speak to college students and community members about the importance of Dr. King and his message. As I grew older, Dr. King was one of the people who fostered my love for activism and public policy. During the marches through my town, we would sing “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song that had become a protest song and a key anthem of The Civil Rights Movement. The song isn’t aggressive nor defiant, but simply a promise: “deep in my heart. I do believe. That we shall overcome some day.”

We have overcome many obstacles as a nation but have many more in front of us. As we progress into the next 50 years, the message of Dr. King will remain just as prevalent, and it will be our duty to continue to work to overcome.

First-year Ruby Van Dyk is a Staff Writer. Her email is rvandyk@fandm.edu.

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