Yesterday, Americans remembered the day fifty years ago, when our nation lost a prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of freedom and equality, with a dignity and persistence that caused him to be beloved, and the target of vile hatred and violence. It was the latter that led to his death from an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968. He was just 39 years old. His young age stuns me. I have a son who is already 31 years old. He seems so young, and yet he is only 8 years from the age when King was lost to us. Martin’s youth belied a wisdom and grace that is timeless. His commitment to a better nation and world for all cannot be denied, even today, decades after his death.
Why King was in Memphis that fateful night testifies to his heroic, unyielding defense of the righteous cause of justice. He was there to defend poor, African American sanitation workers, struggling for their rights as unionists, and as human beings. As in so many cases, for King it was not the where or the how, but the why.
The why was justice.
He heard the voices of oppressed Americans, those who cried out for racial and economic justice, and he joined them in the streets. He brought them together in non-violent protests and rallies. He called on America’s conscience, as one who spoke the words of the God he served as a minister, as well as those of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
He believed in the promise of America, but called our nation to fulfill that promise. Slavery of African Americans, genocide of Native Americans, poverty, institutionalized racism, all stood in the way of that promise. The road to King’s Dream of a Promised Land could only be reached with courage and a commitment to justice.
From the churches of Montgomery to the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the bloody streets of Birmingham, King was committed to peaceful, non-violent change in a nation rent by generations of racism and an unpopular war in Vietnam. In the last months of his life, his prophetic call for economic justice became his most ambitious campaign. Though he did not live to experience the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, his spirit filled it with optimism and hope.
Now, 50 years after Dr. King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, it is right to remember this American Prophet, and his unfinished work. We need to embrace his work of justice, his language of hope, and his spirit of love.
At a time when the leadership of our nation is bent on dividing us, we need Dr. King’s Dream like never before. And at a time when the poor are disenfranchised and forgotten, we need to take up his fallen standard, and embrace the work of a new Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Justice calls out for us to continue his work. History will be the judge of our efforts to bring the Dream to fruition. The call has gone out to join the Spirit of Martin, now more than ever before. Hatred, racism, division cannot be allowed to win this day. Not if we honor Martin and his life’s work. He died for this work. We must live for it.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
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