In the hours before an assassin’s bullet claimed his life in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr. appeared to embrace the specter of his own death as he talked to those gathered at the Mason Temple church:
“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.”
On Wednesday, the nation will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin’s death in 1968. Since then, scores of streets and schools have been named for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner, reminding us of the path to racial and economic equality he sought to show us, the lessons of national unity and generosity, international cooperation and peace, he sought to teach us through his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Consequently, Martin, like countless leaders and followers before him, stands with African-Americans and their country, in spirit. The elders and ancestors — some celebrated, as Martin has been, others unsung — stand as bold explorers and pioneers. They surveyed the land promised to them in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Martin’s spirit stood with President-elect Barack Obama in Chicago’s Grant Park in 2008, and Obama paid homage: “… and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Yes, we can.”
In 2015, Obama led a re-enactment of the 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Martin led the original march. He was bulwarked by his wife, Coretta, and young activists like John Lewis.
Fifty years later, Obama and his throng crossed that Alabama bridge, locking arms with civil rights heroes such as Rep. John Lewis from Georgia and the spirits of Martin, Coretta Scott King and activist Daisy Bates.
And last month, Martin’s spirit was present in the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., to end gun violence, a march in which King’s granddaughter Yolanda was one of the speakers. In brief remarks, she made reference to her grandfather’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and then talked about a dream of her own: “A gun-free world. Period.”
During his 39 years, Martin went from Morehouse College to leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to a March on Washington. In his public life, he melded the poetic cadences of the black preacher with the intellectual reach and exploration of the black intellectual and jazz musician.
As we approach the anniversary of his death, we’re reminded anew that Martin’s spirit lives, his influence endures. His timeless wisdom thunders, as if he were responding to today’s headlines and tweets: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
At 26, Martin accepted the call to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, which had begun with Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her bus seat or her dignity to racial segregation and humiliation.
Today, Martin’s spirit, memory and example stand with everyone who responds to his call to action: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
Who stands ready to heed the call?