He would be 88 now, as of yesterday. And Martin Luther King Jr. would doubtless be marching still, in hope and despair. The presidency of Barack Obama would have thrilled him, of course, and given him hope. But he would worry, yes, about the continuing racial divide in the United States, a divide he tried to heal, preaching nonviolence to millions.
This is the day when King’s birthday is recognized nationally (after a contentious legislative battle) and when communities around the country pause to celebrate a life that ended at 39 and a legacy that never will.
Today in the Triangle, for example, the celebrations will begin with a prayer breakfast at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Research Triangle Park and go on all day at various locations, including a march at the State Capitol at 11. Colleges will host King Day events as well.
And thousands will gather at the spectacular King memorial statue on the National Mall in Washington.
That monument, and the official recognition of this day, were hard-won and long in coming, much like King’s own campaign for understanding and equality of the races. The campaign goes on still.
King’s eloquence would be more valued and important than ever, following the Charleston tragedy and deadly confrontations between some black citizens and police, the racial tensions that surfaced during the presidential campaign. In that long and contentious race, candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump seemed to trade on anger, to use it as fuel. It was no more a healthy emotion in that campaign than it was in the 1950s and ’60s, when the watchword was integration instead of immigration.
How King captured the spirit of his time, trying to make it a positive spirit. “I Have a Dream” was but one of many phrases that seemed to focus the imaginations of a generation of African-Americans, all Americans, rightly restless with injustice and demanding change.
King was right, tragically, in a final speech in which he reckoned he might not live to see an era of unity. His life ended at the hand of an assassin in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The decades that ensued saw some progress in relations among those of different races and in 2008, the election of an African-American as president. But so much tension remains, so much racism lingers in so many hearts.
This preacher knew the battle would be fierce, but he knew it would only be won for the long term with nonviolence, even when the angry mobs yelled in Selma and the dogs and hoses came out in Mississippi. He knew it took more strength to resist violence than to engage in it, but he also recognized that the coming generations might not be as patient, as willing to resist violence as his own had been. What he tried to teach was that it took strength to not answer hate with hate and violence with violence.
Today, the nation’s racial divide remains. Individual triumphs have come — the election of more African-Americans to public office, some integration of the corporate and academic ranks, the easing of some racial tension among young people who are the products of school integration, a successful presidency. But human hearts are harder to reach, much harder that passing laws or capturing those who commit hate crimes. That struggle for hearts goes on, and probably always will.
But what a marvelous lesson King taught, one based in love against hate, understanding against resentment, education against ignorance. Somehow he surely knew, even before he was struck by that bullet, that in 2017, the struggle of his, of his people, of all people, of his country, would still be going, and that the hills would seem as steep as ever.
But he knew as well that to carry on, to live with one another, people must believe that mountaintop is in reach.