Today is Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday in the United States. I first wrote this tribute to Dr. King in 2017, and each year I reprise it, with slight changes or minor additions, for I find that it still says exactly what I wish to say. Given the increase in racism in the United States over the past four years, and particularly last year with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and with peaceful Black Lives Matter protests being assaulted by law enforcement and white supremacists, I think the above quote seems more apt today than ever before. So please, take just a minute to, if nothing else, listen once again to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In these troubled times, it is good to be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”
“That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on 15 January 1929. He would have been 92 years old last Wednesday, had he lived. On this day, we celebrate not only his life, but also his legacy. Martin Luther King Day celebrates not only Dr. King, but the movement he inspired and all those who helped move forward the notion of equal rights for ALL people, all those who worked tirelessly during the civil rights era of the 1960s, as well as those who are continuing the good fight even in this, the year 2021. Dr. King’s fight lives on, for we have moved further away than before from his dream.
Dr. King, along with President John F. Kennedy, was the most moving speaker I have ever heard. To this day, I cannot listen to his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech without tears filling my eyes. If you haven’t heard it for a while, take a few minutes to watch/listen … I promise it will be worth your time.
This post is both a commemoration and a plea for us to carry on the work that was only begun, not yet finished, more than five decades ago. Today we should remember some of the great heroes of the civil rights movement, those who worked tirelessly, some who gave their lives, that we could all live in peace and harmony someday: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nelson Mandela, Nina Simone, Mary McLeod Bethune, Lena Horne, Marva Collins, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Roy Innes, Medgar Evers, Stepen Bantu Biko, Booker T. Washington, John Lewis, Percy Julian, Marcus Garvey, Desmond Tutu, E.D. Nixon, James Meredith, and so many more. I am willing to bet there are some on this list of whom you’ve never heard, or perhaps recognize the name but not the accomplishments. If you’re interested, you can find brief biographies of each of these and more at Biography.com .
Yet, while we celebrate the achievements of Dr. King and the others, there is still much to be done. Just look around you, read the news each day. Think about these statistics:
- More than one in five black families live in households that are food insecure, compared to one in ten white families
- Almost four in ten black children live in a household in poverty, nearly twice the rate of other racial groups
- Among prime-age adults (ages 25 to 54), about one in five black men are not in the labor force, nearly twice the rate of other racial groups
- Although blacks and whites use marijuana at approximately the same rate, blacks are over 3 and a half times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession
- For every dollar earned by a white worker, a black worker only makes 74 cents
- Black families are twice as likely as whites to live in substandard housing conditions
- Black college graduates now have twice the amount of debt as white college graduates
- The likelihood of a black woman born in 2001 being imprisoned over the course of her lifetime is one in 18, compared to 1 in 111 for a white woman
- Similarly, the likelihood of a black man being imprisoned is 1 in 3, compared to 1 in 17 for a white man
- Of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, about half of them will still be there as adults, compared to less than one-quarter of white children
Data courtesy of the Brookings Institute – for charts and supporting details of above date, please click on link.
And of course the above data does not even touch upon the recent spate of hate crimes, racial profiling, and police shootings against African-Americans. There is still much of Dr. King’s work to be accomplished. But who is left to do this work? Most of the leaders of yore are long since gone. There are still noble and courageous people out there carrying on the programs and works of Dr. King and the others, but their voices are perhaps not as loud, and there are none so charismatic as the late Dr. King.
In the current environment of racial divisiveness, we need more than ever to carry on what Dr. King only started. Instead, the past four years have found our nation backtracking on civil and human rights in a number of areas, ranging from discriminatory travel bans against Muslims to turning a federal blind eye to intentionally racially discriminatory state voter-suppression schemes, to opposing protections for transgender people, to inhumanely separating children from families seeking to enter the country. I think Dr. King would be appalled if he returned to visit today.
In a speech on April 12th, 1850, then-Senator and future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis said:
“This Government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes, but by white men for white men.” 
That was wrong then, it is wrong today, and it will always be wrong. That is what Dr. Martin Luther King fought against, that is what I rail and sometimes rant against, that is why we need activists and groups dedicated to fighting for equality for all people … today, tomorrow, and forever.
Here is a bit of trivia you may not know about Dr. King …
- King’s birth name was Michael, not Martin.
The civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. In 1934, however, his father, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, traveled to Germany and became inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. As a result, King Sr. changed his own name as well as that of his 5-year-old son.
King entered college at the age of 15.
King was such a gifted student that he skipped grades nine and 12 before enrolling in 1944 at Morehouse College, the alma mater of his father and maternal grandfather. Although he was the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, King did not intend to follow the family vocation until Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, a noted theologian, convinced him otherwise. King was ordained before graduating college with a degree in sociology.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not his first at the Lincoln Memorial.
Six years before his iconic oration at the March on Washington, King was among the civil rights leaders who spoke in the shadow of the Great Emancipator during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957. Before a crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000, King delivered his first national address on the topic of voting rights. His speech, in which he urged America to “give us the ballot,” drew strong reviews and positioned him at the forefront of the civil rights leadership.
King was imprisoned nearly 30 times.
According to the King Center, the civil rights leader went to jail 29 times. He was arrested for acts of civil disobedience and on trumped-up charges, such as when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone.
King narrowly escaped an assassination attempt a decade before his death.
On September 20, 1958, King was in Harlem signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in Blumstein’s department store when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry. The woman asked if he was Martin Luther King Jr. After he said yes, Curry said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and she plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came to rest alongside his aorta, and King underwent hours of delicate emergency surgery. Surgeons later told King that just one sneeze could have punctured the aorta and killed him. From his hospital bed where he convalesced for weeks, King issued a statement affirming his nonviolent principles and saying he felt no ill will toward his mentally ill attacker.
King’s mother was also slain by a bullet.
On June 30, 1974, as 69-year-old Alberta Williams King played the organ at a Sunday service inside Ebenezer Baptist Church, Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. rose from the front pew, drew two pistols and began to fire shots. One of the bullets struck and killed King, who died steps from where her son had preached nonviolence. The deranged gunman said that Christians were his enemy and that although he had received divine instructions to kill King’s father, who was in the congregation, he killed King’s mother instead because she was closer. The shooting also left a church deacon dead. Chenault received a death penalty sentence that was later changed to life imprisonment, in part due to the King family’s opposition to capital punishment.
Dr. King fought and ultimately gave his life for the values I believe in, the values that should define this nation, though they often do not. Dr. Martin Luther King was a hero of his time … thank you, Dr. King, for all you did, for the values you gave this nation, and for the hope you instilled in us all that your dream will someday come true.
 (Kendi, 2016)
Note: Our friend TokyoSand has written a post with ideas for how each of us can help carry on Dr. King’s legacy … I hope you’ll pay her a visit!