On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed outside a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. Today, January 16, 2012, nearly 44 years later, we once again celebrate him and the legacy he left behind.
In his short time on earth, Dr. King was a clergyman, activist and iconic symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement. He led the charge towards equality, shaping the course of history itself and improving the lives of millions of people.
At a time when years of oppression and hate had led people to become angry and jaded, he preached love and tolerance. When just a few hundred miles away, another leader espoused venom and violence, he taught that "darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Most people remember Dr. King for his most famous speech, delivered at a 1963 march on Washington and entitled I Have a Dream. There he spoke the timeless words "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," where he urged America to "let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado...let freedom ring from every molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside; let freedom ring!"
But the truth is, his work was much greater than that, and went much deeper. A student of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King dedicated himself to non-violent forms of protest despite the brutal acts of violence committed against African Americans every day. He refused to take part in politics, saying "I feel that someone must remain in a position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both--not the servant or master of either."
King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycotts of 1955, and in 1957 helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1959, he wrote The Measure of a Man, where he attempted to portray the ideal political, social and economic structure of society.
Some saw King as a lawbreaker due to his ardent belief that minorities should be welcomed as equals and his refusal to accept laws that treated them as subservient. His consistent reply to this was that "an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law," and "one has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws; conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."
Dr. King showed this respect for the law after being arrested for his part in the Birmingham Campaign. While sitting in jail, he penned the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," where he wrote "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," and "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at age 35. After his death, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2004, and Martin Luther King Day was established as the federal holiday we observe today in 1986.
Would Dr. King be proud of the progress our society has made since his death? I think so. Though racism in many forms still exists around the world, we are always making great strides towards friendship and equality. This isn't to say that there isn't still work to do, because as King would himself say: "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another."
Still, if there is one lesson we can all take away from Dr. King's teachings, regardless of our creed or color, it comes from what would ultimately be his most prophetic of quotes: "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live." We should all strive to find that thing we are passionate about, that thing we care about so much that if in the end we were called upon to die for it, we could look back and see ours as a life well spent. Be it equality, or art, or family or love...if we dedicate our lives in service of that thing, on our last days the final line of I Have a Dream will ring true:
"Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last."