Today, millions of people celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Baptist minister and activist whose tireless work was instrumental to the success of the civil rights movement in the US: from leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, to founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957; from his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, to his I Have a Dream speech months later—King’s impactful achievements were numerous. But none came easily, and King’s every move was met with resistance and often violence. In November of 1964, mere weeks after King became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance,” he even received a letter from the FBI in which it was suggested that he take his own life. Sadly, four years later, in 1968, he was assassinated as he stood on the second-floor balcony of a Memphis motel.
Countless letters have been written about King, a few of which stand out for me. Below is just one. It appeared in the LA Times during the aftermath of King’s death, and was written by Rod Serling, the screenwriter best known for creating The Twilight Zone.
8 April 1968
There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life. In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.
When he suggested that all men should have a place in the sun—we put a special sanctity on the right of ownership and the privilege of prejudice by maintaining that to deny homes to Negroes was a democratic right. Now we acknowledge his compassion—but we exercised no compassion of our own.
When he asked us to understand that men take to the streets out of anguish and hopelessness and a vision of that dream dying, we bought guns and speculated about roving agitators and subversive conspiracies and demanded law and order. We felt anger at the effects, but did little to acknowledge the causes. We extol all the virtues of the man—but we chose not to call them virtues before his death.
And now, belatedly, we talk of this man’s worth—but the judgment comes late in the day as part of a eulogy when it should have been made a matter of record while he existed as a living force. If we are to lend credence to our mourning, there are acknowledgements that must be made now, albeit belatedly.
We must act on the altogether proper assumption that Martin Luther King asked for nothing but that which was his due. He demanded no special concessions, no favored leg up the ladder for his people, despite our impatience with his lifelong prodding of our collective conscience. He asked only for equality, and it is that which we denied him. We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.
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