The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday will be a little grander in Washington, D.C., today. There’s a presidential inauguration happening at the same time.
Some symbolism links the two. Barack Obama, elected twice now, is the most visible example to many of the realization of King’s dream that racial prejudice can be put aside and Americans, regardless of color, can rise to the highest levels in any arena.
But symbols mattered little to King. His life was devoted to something much more substantial: Getting America to live up to its foundational principles of justice and equality, and toppling the country’s barriers of prejudice and discrimination.
Those who are content to view King’s life only through quotes and speeches won’t truly understand how radical and dangerous that work was. Forty-five years after his death at 39, King is too often remembered now in stereotype: Always neatly dressed and coifed, cordial and unruffled, a thoughtful, calm visionary whose gift was great oratory – an ability to inspire and move people with his words.
All that is true. But King lived through a time in this country when the fight for justice and equality was nightmarish. Staying neat and unruffled was impossible. King not only led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he was a fully engaged participant. He felt the sting of the billy clubs, tear gas, whips and cattle prods that demonstrators across the South endured as they marched peacefully. He was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when marchers were beaten so severely that 50 wound up in the hospital and one died.
He was arrested, stoned, mocked and threatened numerous times. He was stabbed, and his home was firebombed. He feared daily for his life and the life of his family. Yet none of that stopped King from soldiering on. He used each hardship to illuminate injustice and press for action to change things.
And things did change. The Montgomery bus boycott, which King led and inspired others to join in 1957, derailed segregated transportation in Alabama and across the nation. His stand and that of others in Selma in 1965 was the nudge President Lyndon Johnson needed. A few days later, Johnson made a televised speech urging Congress to pass the voting rights bill. It did a few months later.
In 1966, King and other protesters were in Cicero, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, protesting housing and employment discrimination. Whites hurled bricks at them and several demonstrators were injured. But that didn’t stop King. He continued protests across the country. On April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tenn., taking part in a strike by black workers over employment discrimination, when he was killed by an assassin. Seven days later, Johnson signed into law another civil rights law, the Fair Housing Act. It was based on a proposal Johnson had discussed with King.
This is the dogged commitment and work it took to bring fundamental change on equality and justice. It’s the commitment and work required today to move us even further along the path of ensuring the country adheres to sentiments in its founding documents.
King’s most quoted words are from the 1963 speech he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day of the March on Washington, and they highlight that point: “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
But King didn’t just dream. He toiled for that result. A less famous quote from him should be a prod to us today: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” More than ever, this country needs people who will speak up and do the work required to ensure justice and equality for all.