In April of 1968, this junior high student was living the trials and joys that face a sixteen year old inching toward adulthood. Many of the specifics of that spring are blurred with the passage of time - but one event I well remember: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
My entire life, my parents taught me about equality and dignity of all - irrespective of race. Yet, I knew that in 1960's Chicago - and 1960's America - equality of race was only a dream, and not a reality. I knew that in my suburban school of almost 4,000 students, only a handful were black. I knew that blacks had a tough (if not impossible) time getting well-paying and professional jobs. I knew that, despite not in fact having Jim Crow, that my city was nevertheless mostly racially segregated.
Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr. was my hero. I, like millions of others, was stirred by the cadence of his moving speeches, by the fierce truth of his words. I hoped that his courage and dignity would change what I knew was so wrong with our world.
And then - in an instant - assassination stopped this amazing man. When I heard of his death, my heart grew cold. I, too, died a little inside.
I am utterly convinced that without this man, without the efforts he made and without the inspiration he gave and the minds changed that he caused, the progress of blacks and race relations in this nation would be woefully worse than today. Though efforts of many others contributed mightily to the positive achievements we've seen, without Martin Luther King, Jr., we cannot know what might have happened. MLK, Jr. was clearly the beacon of hope and faith. Thus, although it has been a long time coming, the King memorial in Washington is both a remembrance and a model of instruction that deserves its place of honor. Charles Krauthammer elaborates.
It is one of the enduring mysteries of American history — so near-providential as to give the most hardened atheist pause — that it should have produced, at every hinge point, great men who matched the moment. A roiling, revolutionary 18th-century British colony gives birth to the greatest cohort of political thinkers ever: Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, Jay. The crisis of the 19th century brings forth Lincoln; the 20th, FDR.
Equally miraculous is Martin Luther King Jr. Black America’s righteous revolt against a century of post-emancipation oppression could have gone in many bitter and destructive directions. It did not. This was largely the work of one man’s leadership, moral imagination and strategic genius. He turned his own deeply Christian belief that “unearned suffering is redemptive” into a creed of nonviolence that he carved into America’s political consciousness. The result was not just racial liberation but national redemption.
Such an achievement, such a life, deserves a monument alongside the other miracles of our history — Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR — which is precisely where stands the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It opened Monday on the Tidal Basin, adjacent to Roosevelt’s seven acres, directly across from Jefferson’s temple, and bisecting the invisible cartographic line connecting the memorials for Jefferson and Lincoln, authors of America’s first two births of freedom, whose promises awaited fulfillment by King.
There is no denying the power of this memorial. You must experience it. In the heart of the nation’s capital, King now literally takes his place in the American pantheon, the only non-president to be so honored. As of Aug. 22, 2011, there is no room for anyone more on the shores of the Tidal Basin. This is as it should be.