If Martin Luther King. Jr. were alive today, he would be 89 – younger than former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, younger than evangelist Billy Graham and younger than England’s Queen Elizabeth II.
He was assassinated 50 years ago this coming April, at the age of only 39, yet his message is no less important than it was in 1968.
Although parts of his dream have become reality, much of it seems as distant as ever. The citizens of the United States of America twice elected an African-American president. Far fewer Americans tolerate, let alone support, the racism that was so pervasive in King’s day.
Yet the systemic challenges faced by children of color have not disappeared over the past half century, nor have the deeply entrenched attitudes, resentment and fear that kept so many people mired in hopeless poverty passed away.
This country needs to keep working to solve those problems.
King was not perfect. No one is. But his vision for justice and equality was wise in the 1960s and it remains a worthy goal. Moreover, his dedication to achieving that goal peaceably, with civility and respect toward all, seems more important than ever.
King was a dreamer, an orator, a prophet who valued action. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question” he said, “is ‘What are you doing for others?’”
In 1994, when the King Holiday and Service Act was signed into law, one purpose was to encourage Americans to spend the holiday volunteering. There is much to be done, and acts of service, no matter how small, add up to real change.
Two other steps are needed:
First, speak out.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” King said. Speak out for what is right; speak out against what is wrong; speak his dreams into reality.
And vote. Work to elect people who will represent everyone in this country, not just those who already wield power. Vote for people who elevate this country’s discourse and value its ideals.
Insist on civility, decency and dignity, on truth, on justice for all. Those dreams are not unattainable; they’re just painfully slow in coming true.
And that’s on all of us.