King’s sacred mission of nonviolent organized political pressure, toward justice for all, still stands as the moral compass of our nation.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for universal rights and the never-resting moral imperative that we honor the call to be of service to one another. His eloquence was personal, spiritual, and infused with the intuition that justice is comprehensible, in its presence and in its absence, to every thinking feeling spirit that lives.
None of us have the right to deflect attention away from Dr. King’s life’s work, because his message spoke specifically of injustices that cannot be ignored, injustices that, if we accept them, undermine our humanity. Dr. King spoke not about divisions or rivalries, but about what is most common to all human beings: our instinctive recognition of fairness and unfairness.
Shared access to fairness is the root of all else that has value among people.
50 years ago this morning, Dr. King was assassinated, while in Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers. His work for social justice, racial integration, and universal rights, had led him to the understanding that extreme wealth inequality was a structural impediment to the nation transcending pervasive racial injustice. This insight led him to say:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When profit motives… are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism & militarism are incapable of being conquered.
President Barack Obama and Rep. John Lewis, a friend of Dr. King and the last surviving speaker at the March on Washington, discussed King’s legacy in this roundtable with student leaders from the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance:
Dr. King courageously outlined in clear terms the racial and economic divisions that haunted our nation and its people, everyday, and the ways in which structural moral failure and degraded human choice made deep and lasting injustice out of those divisions. The degree to which our society is structured to reinforce unfairness was the context that made his voice so universally urgent.
Dr. King spoke not only for universal ideals and for a dream of a better tomorrow. He spoke also for tens of millions of people who suffered brutal injustice, including violence meted out with impunity, for centuries.
This war between what is most vicious in failed human potential and what is most luminous about a free society… this struggle to correct centuries of violent tyranny… this is the war he waged without weapons, without any armor except moral truth and the nation’s need for his leadership… this is the grueling dangerous struggle he walked through with far-sighted grace.
In his last public speech, the night before his death, Dr. King spoke of the threats he was receiving, that federal authorities were monitoring, that airlines and airport security were careful to guard against. He finished his final speech this way:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. 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. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Dr. King went to Memphis to support honest hard-working people calling for fair pay, dignified treatment, and the upholding of basic rights. Facing violent threats, knowing the risk, he lent his voice to their cause, in the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. The next morning, he gave his life for that cause.
Today, we look back on his transformational legacy and on the tragedy of his assassination. Dr. King could well have been alive today, an elder of the universal struggle for fairness, equality, democracy, and shared progress. His loss, and the 50 years we have spent without him, take something vital out of our history and our public life.
So, it is necessary to pause and reflect, to take in the substance of our own day to day existence, the ways in which we make real the aspirations of our shared dream of deep and lasting democracy.
Dr. King’s call to all of us was to find the root of our shared moral life: that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be denied to no one. He embodied the mission of prophetic service: put your ideas, your integrity, your generosity, ahead of even the defense of yourself. Be selfless in serving others, so that all of us can be part of one great fabric of better being — that dream that is the cause of our democracy.