“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King Jr., March 8, 1965
Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. King was just 39 when he was murdered, but his life remains a model of courage and resolve. He showed what can be accomplished by someone who stands for what’s right in the face of hate and persecution.
King was born Michael King Jr., on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. His father, Rev. Michael King, became pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in March 1931. In 1934, King Sr. took a trip to Germany, visiting sites associated with Martin Luther, a founding figure of the Protestant Reformation. “King Sr. returned home from the trip inspired by what he had learned and decided to change both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther in honor of the German reformer.” (Huffington Post, 1/19/15)
As King Jr. grew up, his father embodied this spirit of reformation. King Sr. was a leading figure in the emerging Civil Rights movement. King Jr. remembered several times when his father refused to submit to what was expected of a black man in the South. After one episode, King Sr. said, “I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.” That spirit encouraged King Jr. to stand up against injustice.
King Jr. became an associate pastor at his father’s church after graduating from Morehouse College in 1948. He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 and his Ph.D. in June 1955.
In 1954, King Jr. became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. On Dec. 1, 1955, a black woman in Montgomery, Rosa Parks, famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. She was arrested and found guilty. An organization of black leaders called for a boycott of city buses, asking King to lead the boycott. The boycott started on Dec. 5 and lasted until Dec. 20, 1956. King was now a leader in the Civil Rights movement.
Dr. King believed in equal justice for all, basing his actions on the teachings of Jesus. He preached civil disobedience to unjust laws by nonviolent methods. Violent responses to these peaceful actions revealed what Jim Crow laws of segregation were really like. King was exposing an ugly side of American life.
King was hated and reviled by those in power. He was called a communist. He was blamed whenever riots happened, as if he had encouraged them.
His and his family’s lives were threatened. On Jan. 30, 1956, his house was bombed, with his wife and daughter inside. On Sept. 20, 1958, he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York and nearly died. In spite of the threats, King kept working to bring justice and respect to all Americans.
On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was murdered, King spoke against the Vietnam War to 3,000 people at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. His opposition to the war increased the attacks against him and the cause he was upholding.
In March 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennessee, helping striking sanitation workers. On April 3, he spoke at Mason Temple, concluding with these words: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” The next morning, he was assassinated.
King wasn’t perfect, just as his namesake Martin Luther wasn’t perfect, but both were men of courage and conviction. Both worked to help people recognize their worth. Both refused to be silent about things that matter. Both were willing to give their lives in God’s service, knowing even if they died, their work would continue.
I’ll finish with the Bible verse carved on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Dr. King quoted this verse many times, including the night before he died. The verse, one of my favorites, summarizes what we should all be striving for.
Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Thank you, Dr. King.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.