On April 4, 1968, America lost civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years after his death, at a time when Dr. King would have been 89, his message is still being held close to heart — and is still being fought for.
At the time of Dr. King's death in Memphis, TN, unrest broke out in response to the assassination. Dr. King was in Memphis in anticipation of a march he was to lead, one that his attorneys were fighting for in federal court, one that was unequivocally supposed to be orderly and peaceful. He was killed at the Lorraine Hotel in the company of musician Ben Branch and Rev. Jesse Jackson, preparing to depart for dinner.
In the time that has elapsed since that fateful April day, there are things that have and have not changed in America. "Dr. King bequeathed African-Americans the will to resist and the right to vote," Rev. Jesse Jackson recently wrote in The New York Times, reflecting on Dr. King's death and highlighting current activism against hate. "Five decades ago, a segregationist governor, George Wallace, peddled hate and division in reaction to the civil rights movement. Today, it is the president himself who is inciting anguish, bigotry and fear."
Similarly, former president Barack Obama sat down with civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis to reflect on Dr. King's life and legacy. The conversation was a part of a roundtable at the My Brother's Keeper Alliance with students in Washington, DC, in the hopes of inspiring future leaders. "Being on the right side of history isn't always possible," Obama said. "And it isn't always easy . . . You don't know whether your labors will deliver." Lewis continued his thought, noting that, "when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something."
"Dr. King inspired us to do just that," Lewis said.
A tension in Dr. King's narrative, because he is remembered both as a freedom fighter as well as an outlaw, and it's a fact that resonates sharply in a deeply divided contemporary America, with parallel activism taking place today. While rumors that Dr. King's death was orchestrated by the FBI or Ku Klux Klan continue to roil (unproven), the root of these stories underscore the sanitation of the activist's legacy: Dr. King was seen as unAmerican and a "danger" to the nation set against the unpopularity of civil rights movement at the time. This sentiment has been noted as extremely similar to comments made by critics of Black Lives Matter, today.
Today, on the anniversary of his death, Dr. King is being celebrated far and wide by sometimes antithetical public figures. Memorials and inspirational quotes are swirling on and offline, coming from a mix of public figures from Fr. James Martin to Qasim Rashid, former vice president Joe Biden to Vice President Mike Pence, Rep. Kamala Harris to Gov. Mike Huckabee, RuPaul to Piers Morgan.
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. #MLK50 Proclamation: https://t.co/XXtPO0VX5A pic.twitter.com/SH0esMSyMT— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2018
President Donald Trump added his voice to the mix by sharing a video on Twitter regarding Dr. King's work uniting Americans. "On this cherished day, we honor the memory of Rev. King," Trump said. "We rededicate ourselves to a glorious future where every American from every walk of life can live free from fear, liberated from hatred, and uplifted by boundless love for their fellow citizens."
It's a far cry from the last time Trump honored Dr. King. During the annual MLK Day Proclamation on Jan. 12 — he refused to answer questions regarding comments made the day before in which he referred to some African and Caribbean nations as "sh*thole countries." It also should be noted that Trump once violated the Fair Housing Act by refusing to provide housing to black tenants in the 1970s.
Regardless of the current administration, Dr. King's legacy continues to be heard and held dear in America — and his words will never be forgotten, the words that will continue to inspire generations of Americans for decades (if not centuries) to come.