There are two parts to Martin Luther King’s most enduring legacy that speaks to people of all races about the social and economic inequalities that separated African Americans from the rest of society. The first, clearly addresses the need for African Americans to be allowed the same unalienable rights afforded to all Americans such as the right to freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness. And in the 50 years since, African Americans have made incredible strides as a race beginning in the late 60s following King’s assassination and culminating in the first African American President of the United States in 2008. The major milestones that King eloquently painted in his famous I Have A Dream speech inspired a generation and as a result have contributed to improving the everyday lives of all African Americans. Such improvements include access to higher education and the emergence of a strong African American household and community. Very few would argue that there’s more work to be done to change the attitudes and culture of racial injustice in this country, but that’s precisely where King’s legacy has evolved to represent something even more significant than what was probably intended in his original message. The second part of King’s message has evolved into a call for public service and has the potential to truly encourage more growth for African Americans of future generations.
The Nonviolent Struggle
It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago an African American was not allowed to sit in the front of the bus or drink from the same water fountain as their white counterpart. It was this inequity that inspired King’s March on Washington which expressed a growing frustration that the status quo was no longer acceptable and that the United States (particularly the South) would have to make changes that integrated African Americans into society. Despite repeated hostile opposition and death threats, King courageously continued his peaceful demonstrations with the hopes that he could share the message that there was absolutely no difference between black and white Americans except the color of their skin. This insistence of King that all Americans be afforded the same unalienable rights was particularly powerful because it advocated for rights that, by definition, unquestionably belong to each individual. He was merely asking all opposed to the integration of African Americans into society to respect those rights and that insistence led to the advancements we’ve witnessed since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Advancement in the African American Community
Such advancements include the creation of BET (a black-oriented cable channel), increased representation of African Americans in executive leadership roles in major American industries, the first African American Secretary of State in 2001 (Colin Powell), and culminating in the first elected African American president of the United States, President Barack Obama in 2008. While every “first” achieved over the past 50 years reflect a move in the right direction, the election of an African American to the highest office in the world shows that attitudes across all ethnicities are changing and that is encouraging the next generation to aspire to be their absolute best without societal limitations. For the first time, it is not impossible to believe that an African American can influence the highest levels of policy or be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. With the same hard work and dedication, an African American child can grow to be as successful as their white counterparts. And yet there’s still more to accomplish since African Americans are behind other races when it comes to earned wages, access to healthcare, and life expectancy.
More Work Still Lies Ahead
These shortcomings are not insurmountable, but will require a strong commitment and ownership of the challenges we all face. We have to ask ourselves: What do we have to do as a country to make sure that wages are equal for all races? How do we increase the life expectancy of all ethnicities in the United States? The first step in answering the call for action is public service. Public service doesn’t have to be restricted to cleaning up national parks or donating clothes once a year to commemorate King’s legacy. It can also include speaking to African American youths about the importance of an education and their untapped potential for greatness. Public service to the future of this country, black and white, can mean encouraging continued respect of the differences we all share and the important role we all play in making this world a better place. If everyone would commit to educating our youths about the importance of equality and compassion, there may be remarkable changes to correct some of the racial inequities that still exist in this country and may lead to more “firsts” for the African American race.
The Lasting Legacy of a True Leader
It is without question that our lives are better today because Martin Luther King, Jr. lived. If he was alive today, I imagine he would be proud at the amount of change he was able to influence in his lifetime. He was the voice of the voiceless. The leader among those without representation. More importantly, he personified the frustration and exhaustion of a race that suffered more than its fair share of abuse over the last three hundred years. His lasting legacy is a commitment to fighting for equality, but what his message really conveyed was taking the struggle we’ve experienced as a nation and using that to create a better future. No one would have guessed in the 1960s that the struggle for civil rights would have culminated into the election of an African American president or the growth of African American culture in mainstream America. And for that, we owe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so much for being brave enough to speak the truth and suffer the consequences. The only way to repay him is to stay true to his message and live up to the sweeping ambitions he painted as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 to share his dream with the world.