Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.
Posted by Ryan on April 4, 2008
Forty years ago today, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a balcony outside the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray just after 6pm.
The Civil Rights Movement lost its most powerful Twentieth Century figure that day, and the movement was never the same. However, the successful civic action by millions of individuals over the previous fifteen years, legislative achievements through grassroot movements, and the changing of hearts and minds through non-violent protest were all important parts of Dr. King’s legacy. As far as the Movement was concerned, there was no heir-apparent to Dr. King, being such a unique and special individual living at the right place and right time. In Washington DC, on August 28, 1963, America saw him at his finest and got a glipse of King’s rhetorical power in his historic “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Of all the speeches Dr. King made, his last public speech on April 3, 1968, while as inspiring as most of his speeches, is quite eerie. Keep in mind he was shot and killed the next day:
Rhetorical questions like, “Has Dr. King’s ‘dream’ been realized?” are discussed every year on his birthday and today as we use those dates to contemplate the legacy of America’s Gandhi. As a white man born nine years after King’s assassination, I only know what I’ve seen with my own eyes and learned about the Civil Rights Movement in books, through talking to people who remember it, and on documentary film.
For instance, I’d like to think that Dr. King would be proud that so many Americans can seriouly accept or reject Barack Obama as potentially our next President truly on the merits of his positions on the important issues while not even mentioning his race as a factor. Not everyone feels that way, but many Americans are there. I won’t vote for Obama because he’s a socialist with very little experience governing anything, not because of his looks.
I’d like to think that we are living in a post-racial era. My students are shocked at the footage they see in class about the Movement and don’t fully understand Affirmative Action, even though they accept it as part of the landscape. They tend to like Obama but detest Al Sharpton. They call each other the “n-” word in the hall and deem it OK as long as the word ends in an “a” and not an “er”. To this Generation Xer, that’s a little strange. My school is mostly white, but with significant East Asian, Indian, Arab, and African populations so no class is fully white, nor completely full of minorities. So in the community where I teach, they tend not to see race as too big a deal: not quite colorblind, but blurrier than high school back in the 1990s.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: what one generation embraces, the next one accepts. Perhaps this is the legacy of Dr. King that we see all around us — slow but true progress towards race meaning less and less to us in America.