Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for peace and equality in a world where too many people gave him or people of color neither.
Before a bullet ended his life on April 4, 1968, the equality he demanded for African Americans too often generated violence and deepening divisions. It wasn’t just in the South, either.
Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City were just a few cities across the nation that experienced racial turmoil.
I was a junior at Lebanon High School in Ohio when an assassin shot Dr. King in Memphis, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
My mother cried that night, and I think we all feared what was happening to our country. Just three years before Dr. King was murdered, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally outside my little town.
Adults rebuked our DeMolay chapter because a band we hired for a dance in the Masonic Lodge had a Black drummer, and that infuriated the local Masons. A district leader warned us not to do that again because Blacks had separate organizations, which was how they wanted things.
That was garbage, of course. Separation was the mantra for racists who insisted they didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies.
Whether overt like in the Deep South or more subtle in other states, segregation was just the way things were. It seems ridiculous now to remember how Blacks couldn’t attend public state universities or live where they wanted.
They often settled for low-wage jobs, police harassed them, and Whites mocked them. They believed Blacks should stay “over there”—wherever “over there” was.
But I wonder what Dr. King would say about today’s America?
I think he would lead another March on Washington to demand that Congress stop bickering about filibusters and pass national voting rights protections. He would support the goal of Black Lives Matter while stressing peace. He would speak out about George Floyd and Amaud Aubrey.
Dr. King would have gone to Charlottesville and condemned the big lie of a stolen presidential election. He wouldn’t stomach lawmakers who claim they’re not racist while supporting bills that deepen divides.
But he would also know that hate and division today aren’t exclusive to race, and he would respond accordingly.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said it tracks more than 1,600 extremist groups in the United States, including 68 in Florida. Today’s hate group might focus on Muslims, Jews, LGBTQs, or simply general hate.
The SPLC said those groups “peddle a combination of well-known hate and conspiracy theories, in addition to unique bigotries that are not easily categorized. Several of the groups seek to profit off their bigotry by selling a miscellany of hate materials from several different sectors of the white supremacist movement.”
History correctly records Dr. King as one of this country’s most important humans. A century after the Civil War, he forced this nation to admit that it wasn’t living by what the Declaration of Independence proclaimed about equality.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Dr. King had a different proclamation.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said.
We’ll recall those words as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There will be speeches, proclamations, and resolutions. But there also should be a recognition that nearly 54 years after his death, the quest for the change he sought to bring is ongoing.