Hard to believe that 40 years have passed. 40 years — longer than the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was only 39 when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His assassin, James Earl Ray, died ten years ago; many people still believe that Ray was acting as part of a larger conspiracy but, as with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the conspiracy theories remain unproven.
40 years seems not so long ago to those of us who lived through that terrible year of 1968.
40 years seems like yesterday when we consider the length of our national progress on achieving true racial equality.
40 years is today when we listen to the current national discussion on race.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of Dr. King’s greatness is the fact that, even after 40 years, more than a generation, his impact continues to be remarkably strong in a society that more often invents disposable heroes. We often confuse celebrity with leadership, and fame with substance. We are so consumed with the American Idol judges that we pay little attention to what the Supreme Court justices are up to. We know there’s a war on, but what we really want to know is whether Britney is out of rehab. We observe solemn commemorative days in honor of iconic national leaders by shopping for mattresses.
Despite our society’s preoccupations with the most superficial ideas at times, we are now, quite remarkably, in the midst of a serious, intense and possibly nation-changing discussion about the meaning of race in our lives in political and social communities. Barack Obama’s candidacy for the presidency of the United States is the immediate spark for this great conversation, but the still-resonant voice of Dr. King echoes throughout our speeches and debates and essays and talk shows and classroom lectures and schoolyard arguments.
Time and distance have given Dr. King’s words and impact more context, and perhaps more importance than they had even in 1968. That same distance has also prompted more critical analysis of Dr. King’s legacy and deeds, including some discussion about whether “the dream” of a truly color-blind society is realistic, achievable, or desirable.
The best tribute we can pay to Dr. King on this sad day of remembrance is to give new life to his words by examining them, debating them as we wish, and using them and inspiration to move ahead with the challenge of building a better nation and society.
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