49 years after his tragic death, America still celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2017 with this month’s MLK Day. Established in 1983, this day honors King’s legacy as civil rights icon and proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience. MLK Day was created in part by President Ronald Reagan in hopes that Americans would be reminded of King’s fierce yet peaceable push for racial equality in the 1960s.
During this time especially, racial tension, violence, and hatred were rampant throughout the US, ostensibly justified by Jim Crow laws. In response, massive, concerted efforts such as the bus boycotts of Birmingham and the protests of Selma were launched to promote racial equality. Yet it was the man behind the scenes—or rather, leading the crowd—who brought the civil disobedience to the national stage. King’s masterful rhetoric, poise, and courage rallied the people onward, and quickly caught America’s attention.
“He knew how to hold an audience,” notes SUA history teacher Ms. Ewart. “King was a very charismatic, youthful figure, and his initiative gave the nonviolence movement more credence” than it previously had with Thoreau and Gandhi. Ms. Ewart holds that this is due to King’s strong Christian background as a Baptist minister; his moral foundation attracted Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike to join the fight for racial equality.
With King’s leadership, the civil disobedience movement was vaulted onto a stage no one could ignore: Washington, D.C., where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. By 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and was even leading some peaceful protests against America’s controversial role in Vietnam. It was a profound loss for the world when he was assassinated in 1968 at his hotel in Memphis, TN.
A mere 15 years after his death, King was immortalized in a national holiday, the third Monday of January. This day “is a reminder to advocate for everyone, not just some. It’s an opportunity for healing and working together,” points out Ms. Ewart. “MLK would probably be very proud of how far America has come, but he would be quick to note there’s still a long way to go.”
The 2016 election, for instance, produced massive division in America. In the spirit of King, Ms. Ewart advises to “take the energy or disappointment from the election and use it as a catalyst for change. I think King would love the prophet aspect we have at SUA and would encourage that idea, whether that be by standing up against bullies at school, social media, or however we may be called.”
Above all, though, we should remember that we have the same potential King had, we need only find a worthy cause and work together as MLK encouraged. Perhaps then we can indeed live his American Dream.