MLK holiday celebrates a man and an ongoing movement

January 19, 2014 

There had been a bomb threat against the plane that was taking Martin Luther King Jr. on his fateful flight to Memphis that April day in 1968.

And the bomb threat was what prompted him to close that last speech, on April 3, with references to his having “been to the mountaintop” and having seen the promised land and being “not worried about anything.”

But he was worried. King had been beaten, jailed, threatened, spied upon by the FBI and taunted by angry mobs ever since he signed on with the civil rights movement. He was only 39 years old, with four small children, and there he was at the forefront of a cause guaranteed to make enemies. Tough enemies. Dangerous enemies.

But on April 4, as he stood on a hotel balcony, it wasn’t some well-organized enemy who killed him. James Earl Ray, a lifelong loser with a rifle, shot a great man to death.

Monday, we celebrate King’s life on a hard-won federal holiday, long opposed by Southern legislators but signed into law by President Ronald Reagan more than 30 years ago.

It is indeed a life worth remembering.

King no doubt would find familiarity among the battles of this day, particularly with the aftermath of the Great Recession when so many Americans lost their jobs. Many remain unemployed or underemployed and struggling to hold on. King would be at home bringing his fight for the little guy to North Carolina today, where unemployment benefits have been cut and where many working poor have been denied access to medical insurance that would have come with an expansion of Medicaid.

Yes, in the months before his death, King had launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which was going to focus on what he called “economic justice.” The campaign would have addressed the minimum wage, certainly, and equal pay and treatment for all workers.

It was this cause that took King to Memphis. There was to be a demonstration in support of black public works employees, who had been treated unfairly by the city.

But King, who recognized the need for poor people of all races to join together in demanding their rights, would certainly have expanded the definitions of his movement beyond those of racial equality. He might well have been the leader who could have brought together people of sometimes conflicting social views – lower-income whites and working class folks of all races – to fight for one another.

Memphis might have been the start of that. Instead, it was a scene of world-changing tragedy.

King did change the world – and for the better. His words continue to lead and to draw people together. In Washington, a monument not far from where King made his “I have a dream” speech includes his inspiring quotes.

A great man he was. A greater man he might have been. But his mark on American society is indelible. Today, in his spirit, may we seek to serve others and be grateful for how he served all Americans.

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