‘We Have An Opportunity To Make America A Better Nation’

50 Years Later, King's Message Still Resonates

Today is a day that most of us old enough to remember wish we could forget. mlk

Standing on the balcony of a nondescript motel in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down 50 years ago today.

The grainy photos of Dr. King’s staff, pointing from the balcony toward the sound of the shots – their leader crumpled at their feet – haunt us still. So much was lost. So much remained – and still remains – to be done.

This milestone anniversary comes as the nation, after what looked to many of us like progress toward the realization of Dr. King’s famous dream in the two-term presidency of Barack Obama, now seems to be lurching backwards. Donald Trump has tapped into a vein of resentment and prejudice in the body politic that we hoped had been tied off.

Of course, we should have known better. Dr. King certainly did. He was the driving force behind landmark advances like the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, but he also knew all about the worst of America. He’d seen crosses burned, heads bashed, peaceful demonstrators routed by tear gas and firehoses simply because they stood up to demand the equal justice under law promised by our Constitution.

None of that, and worse, deterred him. On the day before his murder, rallying striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. King called on them “to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

Today, the mean spirit of President Trump’s rally speeches and Twitter feed, the stoking of old resentments embedded in his demands for a border wall, his initial post-Charlottesville refusal to disavow white supremacists, his long history of mistreating women, and his attacks on press freedom tempt us to give up on American democracy. The polls and the anemic turnout in our elections tell us that millions of our fellow citizens have done just that.

Dr. King did not give up his life for us to give up on the democracy he fought so hard to strengthen. So, as we recall him on this historic anniversary, perhaps the best way to honor his memory is to follow his example, expressed in another passage from that last speech in Memphis.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.”