Why Martin Luther King, Jr. Matters More Than Ever

In April 1968, barely three months after his 39th birthday, January 15, 1968, Nobel Peace Prize winner, minister, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.

And every year since 1986, the nation has had a three-day U.S. Federal holiday weekend because of him. But has the meaning been lost on us? What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do for the nation? For the world? Here’s a reminder, it’s especially poignant given the current state of politics and the nation’s Zeitgeist. These are the achievements of a humble man born of a minister and choir teacher in Atlanta, Georgia.

King led the Montgomery bus boycott (which lasted more than a year) following Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest after she stayed in her seat at the front of a city bus. His house was bombed, and he was arrested, but the events resulted in the 1956 U.S. District Court ruling that effectively ended racial segregation on the city’s public buses. It propelled King to the national spotlight as a spokesman for the civil rights movement.

In 1957, King and other leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its goal was to involve African-American churches to support civil rights reform through staging nonviolent protests. Over the next several years, the SCLC participated in non-violent campaigns against racial segregation and economic injustice in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and New York City, just to name a few.

In 1963, King and the SCLC along with leaders from five other major civil rights organizations, developed and staged the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was designed to reveal to the general public the destitute living and working conditions of African-Americans in the South.

What exactly did the march bring to the spotlight? It demanded the end of public school segregation; civil rights legislation that included preventing employers from discriminating against diverse employees; and a consistent minimum wage regardless of race.

It was during the March on Washington that King made his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

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.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.”

After this speech and until his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his work in civil rights. He worked tirelessly to bring awareness and change to those suffering from economic injustice, poverty, and residential, educational and job discrimination nationwide.

Within a week of his death, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included a section called the Fair Housing Act. It prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability.

In these times of political unrest, remember your history and the sacrifices that have been made for your freedom and for your way of life. Just because time has passed doesn’t mean all past struggles have been overcome, and there are still millions who suffer today. It’s up to each of us, as American citizens, to carry on Dr. King’s visions to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities that he and others fought for half a century ago.