Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, calling for an end to racism (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 94 this year on January 15, but his life violently ended at the hand of an assassin who murdered him while standing on the balcony of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. King was there to participate in a march in support of the striking Memphis sanitary workers. 

Following a lengthy campaign that brought together civil rights leaders, entertainers, politicians, and a broad coalition of advocates across the country, significant support was garnered, resulting in the successful passage of the King holiday bill championed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, 1983, with King’s widow, Coretta Scott, looking over his shoulder.  

Declared a “Day on and Not a Day Off,” D.C. has been at the forefront of maintaining annual commemorations honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy. Dozens of events in the D.C. area are held annually, but more importantly, is their consistency over the past 40 years. These events help Americans measure how far we’ve come and expose successive generations to the struggle, sacrifices, and achievements Dr. King and the civil rights movement garnered in order to chip away at long-standing inequities and discrimination against Black people.

Black Americans have come a long way, and their progress would make Dr. King proud. But there’s so much more work left to be done. A look at the equity landscape shows that Dr. King would still be fighting for quality education for all children, access to quality healthcare, equity in homeownership, jobs, justice and peace.

King probably would not have been surprised by the insurrectionist who stormed the Capital last year on January 6. He encountered their ancestors who behaved similarly. Still, his faith would lead him to conclude once again, “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.”

Honoring Dr. King on the holiday is a must, but more significantly is continuing to discover who he was and what he stood for. His words are just as meaningful and relevant today as they were 55 years ago. And, we still have a lot to learn from a man who had the faith of a mustardseed and unconquerable hope for the future.

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