Two years ago, I came upon the FBI report describing his death while researching the 1968 race riots throughout America and the world. The 113 page document opens with a 1977 memo citing, "no decision has been made yet whether this report will be released to the public." However, what startled me was not that the files could be kept private, but that Dr. King was shot in a moment of regularity when so much of his life was filled with extremely courageous acts. At the time of his death, King was simply standing outside his Memphis hotel room on a balcony discussing the weather with his driver who said to bring a top coat so he would not be cold. That image of Dr. King has stayed with me ever since.
The night before his death, on April 3rd, King delivered his I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. He had returned to Memphis to lend support to the striking sanitation workers and announce a peaceful April 8 march. Earlier that day, King and his aids were served a restraining order by Federal Marshals to halt the massive protest, because in late March similar Memphis protests had erupted into violence. Those protests had deeply distressed King due to his belief in peaceful, nonviolent assembly. In the Mountaintop speech, Dr. King went through history citing great thinkers from Aristotle onward, but King focused on the message those who assemble often share when he said:
"If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy." Now that's a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around...But I know, somehow only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding -- something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis Tennessee -- the cry is always the same -- "We want to be free."How relevant do his words remain?
The next day, Dr. King was killed by one gunshot wound. Today in NPR and Washington Post Op-Eds Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, discusses how deeply King's vision still affects our current lives and why it is so important to honor and continue his legacy.
In the NPR article, Jealous shares how scared he was seventeen years ago while organizing marches in Mississippi, knowing full well of the many threats. Yet, he reminded himself then of something his parents always used to tell him. "We all get scared. The question, son, is how you respond. If you act in response to your fears, you are a coward. If you act in spite of your fears, you are courageous."
Today, Jealous also reminds that many want to believe protestors and marchers throughout the United States and the world do not face death threats and harm on a daily basis, but the fact is political violence, discrimination, and injustice are still very much a part of humanity's story -- here in America and internationally. Jealous shares how on January 17, 2011, just a week after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona, police in Washington state quickly defused a bomb found on a bench in downtown Spokane. It was placed there to explode as NAACP marchers passed by.
In the Washington Post article, Jealous says to look to Wisconsin where public workers, teachers, and nurses recently lost their bargaining rights even as the state stripped them of benefits and wages. So, they protested. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his I Have a Dream speech, in which he said,
We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
How relevant do his words remain?
I write often about the perils and strength of women all over the world who are fighting every day for gender equity and justice. For safety. For access to basic health care or public services for themselves and their children. Last week, Amnesty International called for the release of the young Libyan female lawyer who is being detained after she proclaimed el-Qaddafi's forces raped her while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Arab world to include women in government and institutions.
"The spirit and devotion exemplified by women in North Africa and the Middle East -- and the ongoing challenges they continue to face -- is both an inspiration to us all and a reminder that discrimination and gender-based violence endures around the world," Clinton said.
Yet, if Dr. King's legacy -- his dream -- is to end inequality so people all over the world are rich with freedom and justice, is the path of my country, of our world, moving us closer or farther away? The protests in North Africa and the Middle East show many people with collective and individual courage who are advocating for equality through peaceful demonstration. The protests in Wisconsin mirror the same. On this day when Americans honor a man whose vision was extraordinary and egalitarian, my hope is one day we'll all be able to acknowledge we're not just honoring, but living Dr. King's dream.
The NAACP plans 40 peaceful actions today as part of their We Are One campaign.