On April 3, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke passionately to striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee. His speech, where he echoed that he’s “been to the Mountaintop,” would be the last one he would deliver. King was dead the next day after a bullet struck him while he was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was 39.
It’s been 51 years since King's assassination but his presence is still felt today. It can be felt not only because of his granddaughter, who evoked his spirit at last year's March For Our Lives rally, and not because of a federal holiday that commemorates his birth but because many of the things he marched for and died for are still relevant today.
In the years since his death, Black men and women are still disproportionately killed by law enforcement. Activists, who have been inspired by King’s nonviolent protests, still take to the streets to march for justice and housing discrimination, which are causes he took up and are still prevalent in cities across the country.
Examining King’s legacy is to look at a man who died at a moment in his life where he wasn’t seen as the beloved preacher who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. He continued to be a target of the FBI, drew the ire of Mayor Richard J. Daley when he advocated for fair housing for African-Americans in Chicago, and most troubling, he faced an exodus of his close friends and supporters when he spoke against the Vietnam War.
“It's one thing when thousands of people are around you and you have their support to do the right thing,” said Peter Kunhardt, who directed the HBO Documentary King in the Wilderness that looked at the last three years of his life. “It's another thing when you're alone and there's a lot of negative press against you, which there was when he came out against the war. He felt alone and yet kept to his vision.”
Despite the modern challenges that remain, King did not die in vain. His family and friends are committed to carrying out his life’s work; the country has seen its first African-American president and a new generation continues to be inspired by his message.
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who worked closely with King and played a major part in the Civil Rights Movement, sat down with former President Barack Obama last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Lewis recalled being attacked by Ku Klux Klan members when he was trying to desegregate a White waiting room and how he was able to forgive one of the attackers because of King’s nonviolent approach to protest.
“Many years later, this member of the Klan … and his son came to my office and said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I’ve been a member of the Klan. I’m one of the people that beat you and your seatmate. I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology?’ Lewis recalled. “I said, ‘I accept your apology.’ He said, ‘Will you forgive me?’ I said, ‘I forgive you.’ That’s the power of the way of peace and love.”
King knew he wouldn’t be around much longer and that’s clear when listening to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” His death was something he had made peace with, but he wanted people to know that giving up wasn’t an option.
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” he said at Mason Temple. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
There are still challenges ahead, but King would be proud that his message is still being heard loud and clear, and that people such as his granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, are seeing it through as he intended.