Like most black kids of my generation, I had the idea that Dr. King was ‘somebody’ before I had any real concept of who that ‘somebody’ was. It was his picture and Jesus on the back of our church fans. At my grandfather’s house, there were two pictures in the house that weren’t family: John F. Kennedy and MLK. There wasn’t a ‘King Holiday’ in the early years of my childhood, for awhile he was just the ‘black hero.’
When my sister and I were still in our ‘kiddie’ stage, we made the family road trip to Walt Disney World. My father decided one of our pit stops would be Atlanta, which struck me as a little odd since I knew at the time we didn’t have any family on either side in the ATL. As it turns out, he timed our pit stop on the weekend of some type of “King Fest.” My mother still has a picture of herself with Yolanda King that she treasures; we stopped by Ebenezer, we went to the Center, we visited Dr. King’s tomb. It was the first time I went to the gravesite of someone outside my family. It wasn’t a morbid thing since it’s right there with the museum, but it made me think. In retrospect, it was probably the beginning of my interest in Black History.
Once I got to an age where I could understand race and America, I started with Dr. King’s life and works. All of them. His own words (“I have a Dream,”, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”) some of the well written biographies about him and his crusades (Selma, Chicago, Birmingham, D.C., and Memphis), his allies and his adversaries (the Kennedys, Malcolm, Sammy and Brando, Hoover). I wouldn’t call myself an expert but I’d say I’d know “more than average.” It played a large part in shaping my identity and what I value.
In practical and satirical ways, people often ask a) has Dr. King’s Dream been fulfilled and b) what would Dr. King be fighting against today? The answer to both questions of course is that we’ll never really know. Even in his eerily prophetic final speech, he said “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land!” For better or worse, part of the practical nature of giving your life over to a larger purpose means you will not see the ‘end result’ of what you’re fighting for. In the cynical times we live in, it’s something of a minor miracle that anyone does something knowing their good deeds can and sometimes will be taken in vain.
But as the man himself wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (That’s also my single favorite quote of his.) As a child looking at his final resting place, I had no idea what ‘injustice’ meant. As a man, I understand it too well. I don’t have the hero complex I had as a teenager, but I will always care enough about the world around me to do what I can.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.