One Young Man’s Legacy

Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I imagine that more than a few of you reading this are old enough to remember his death and the violent events that followed. That series of national traumas still identify 1968, and their ripples are still felt today. Of course at the moment of Dr. King’s murder we couldn’t know this. – That’s kinda how history works.

When Dr. King was killed he was in Memphis in support of a strike by the city’s African American garbage haulers. But, in the months leading up to his Memphis visit, Dr. King was moving toward championing issues that included the common interests of all poor people, not just black citizens. This included the economic inequities that increasingly dictated who was dying in Vietnam and who managed to stay safe at home. In the weeks before his death he was working to organize a new march on Washington known as the “Poor People’s Campaign.”

If he had not been murdered, what role might he have played in the shaping of today’s America? His father lived to be 84. If fate had allowed the Reverend Dr. King a full life span, would he have been an influential voice well into our present times?

Now, I know that playing the game of “what if” is always considered a waste of time. But for me, playing it a bit does underscore what a huge figure Martin Luther King was in our history:

For example, to carry my “what if” speculation further, if the Reverend Dr. King hadn’t been assassinate in April, there wouldn’t have been riot- torched neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side. If there had been no West Side riots, Mayor Daley (the first) might have handled the crowds of Vietnam War protestors on Chicago’s streets with less reactionary fear. If his approved “police riots” (as defined by the Kerner Commission) had not occurred, the eventual Democratic Party presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, wouldn’t have had to spend weeks repairing his Party’s morale and focus, weeks that took time away from serious campaigning. And if Humphrey had had those few extra weeks to build on his rising campaign momentum, the odds are good that he would have defeated Richard Nixon. No Nixon and a whole lot of our history, much of it harmful, changes. — Of course, who can say where that “new” history might have led us.

But enough of that “what if” stuff. “What is” today, is a clear measure of the greatness of Dr. King and the impact of his enlightening influence on our society. Yes, we have not yet achieved the levels of equality that King stood for so strongly. But today’s awareness of the wrongness of inequity — whether regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, every category of humanity — can in large part be traced back to the stands taken by the Reverend Dr. King. 

In thinking today about Martin Luther King, I remembered how, several years ago, I was surprised to learn how young MLK was at his death. When he died, I was in my twenties and had been aware of Dr. King for what already seemed like a long time. (It was probably not much more than ten years, but to someone in his twenties, ten years is a “long time.”) So, because of my familiarity with his name, the established record of his leadership and the maturity of his message I thought of him then as an older man. – King was just 39.

Last week, I commented on the optimism I gained from watching the remarkable student leaders from Parkland Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the thousands of young people who have joined in a crusade to make America less exposed to gun violence. These youths are similar in age to many of the young followers of Dr. King. And last month’s success of their March For Our Lives demonstrations is the most recent example of Dr. King’s legacy. There have been many examples in the past and there will be many more in the future.

Today, there’s no question in my mind that it is going to take youthful activism to get our America back on track. I’m not saying the rest of us don’t need to be involved too. But success is going to require relentless commitment, boundless energy and lots of time. These are resources young people have in the greatest abundance.

The Reverend Dr. King was just 26 when he began his fight for civil rights as the elected leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Sadly, his time to affect change was cut short by an evil act. But that act could not erase what Dr. King began. He helped turn America in a better direction. On this 50th observance of his assassination, we should all take a moment to be grateful for his incredible gift to all of us.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973 

P.S. In researching info for my comments, I came upon a video of the speech made by Bobby Kennedy as he delivered the news of MLK’s death to a mostly black Indianapolis crowd. Many believe his heartfelt words saved that city from the type of riots that exploded in other cities, including Chicago. It is one of the most moving speeches I have ever seen.