Forty years ago today the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was murdered. At varying points throughout my life I have asked older people about that fateful day. All of the responses have been similar and consistent. They have told me of an overwhelming feeling of grief, and a sense of feeling lost and abandoned. Many spoke of rage, which was evident through the riots in several cities that preceded the announcement of his death. But it was mostly sadness.
Leaders of the caliber of King come along infrequently in life, if at all. When they do it’s something to behold because for some reason their time with us is often short. Unfortunately, we tend to not understand the greatness they possessed until long after they left us.
Clearly I am not an academic. I have not spent years poring over volumes that dissect Dr. King in the search for new truths. I have never met with a surviving member of his inner circle over coffee for an interview. I hold no Ph. D. that can somehow give credibility to even the most inane King theories. No one will ever call me to give lecture based upon my research and opinion of the man. My knowledge of Dr. King comes from reading, listening, and watching film, much like everyone else’s. The only difference is that the way I experience these history lessons are very much my own. And that, to some degree, gives me more than what is needed to write about my single greatest inspiration (aside from the Dev, of course).
Dr. King has inspired me not by his dream, but by his being. As a child I can openly admit that he was an enigma to me. He was someone to revere for some obscure reason, and write reports about. Substance and analysis would come later. The schools I attended deified him, playing up his martyrdom, but giving no flesh to the body of his words. They gave him no context. Most teachers shied away from the reality that comes with deep, thorough consideration of his relevance. The reality being that segregation, Jim Crow, and the disenfranchisement of an entire race of people was what necessitated a man, a leader, like king to be in the first place.
Too many people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds would rather us forget or “get over” the startling events of the past. To that I ask how can anyone encourage such a blatant disservice to those who came before us and died along with Dr. King? To do such a thing would not be us putting a significant segment of black history on a shelf, but a significant segment of American history as well. I do not look at my history as one of victimization, but of triumph against insurmountable odds. And as such we cannot allow the true legacy of Dr. King be forgotten or glossed over.
It was only in adulthood that I found my Dr. King, though I knew him my entire life. The fact that he was a real man of blood and bone fascinated me. It is knowing of his flaws that make him flawless to me. Many of the things he did no man could do, but a man is what he was. When he thought that he couldn’t go on, he pressed on. When he thought he had ran out of words to say, the words came back to him. When he knew that the world was turning against him he stood toe to toe with the world, continuing to pursue justice. When they told him that he should focus on black issues, he gave his opinion on the war that was raging at the time. When he feared for his own life, he decided that all he could do was live until he was called home.
Today as I think about Dr. King and my place in this world that he helped create, I will remember him not as a man of smiles and dreams, but as a man of action. I will think about how his leadership, character, and strength have endured. And how we owe it to him to remember his reality, not the fantasy that so many have weaved from brief sound bites and misleading images.
We’ve traveled long and far since Dr. King’s death, but we still have a way to go. Perhaps in this election year we will all get a little closer to the promised land.