The upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday takes on added significance this year, on what would have been a special birthday for the iconic civil rights leader. On Tuesday, January 15, 2019, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 90 years old.
Of course, King did not even live to reach middle age, being cut down by an assassin’s bullet while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday, April 4, 1968. The Lorraine Motel is now a national civil rights museum, offering a hopeful sign of the immense political and social transformations that have taken place since that fateful day.
Because of this 90th milestone, however, this year’s King holiday offers an annual opportunity for the nation to take stock of the struggle for black citizenship that turned a Baptist preacher from Atlanta, Georgia, into a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. It also allows us to assess the full measure of King’s message of racial equality, economic justice, and peace in our own time.
Americans too often praise the man while ignoring the message. Martin Luther King Jr.’s resounding and living legacy informs a range of contemporary social movements fighting for civil and human rights for the most marginalized and oppressed populations in America and around the world. King defined a “beloved community” as a place not only free of injustice, but a society that actively promotes an ethic of love, justice, and humanity in its legal, political, and civic life, as well as its religious, spiritual, and moral spheres.
King balanced a scathing indictment against war, racism, poverty, and materialism toward the end of his life with a defiant political optimism rooted in his faith that millions of Americans could mobilize a nonviolent army of the dispossessed, capable of fundamentally transforming the political and economic status quo.
King’s search for racial justice and black citizenship found him consistently decrying the yawning gap between the lofty rhetoric of American democracy and its at times brutal reality.
This gap continues to grow in our own time, visible in the comments made by Rep. Steve King and highlighted by President Trump’s efforts to build a wall at the nation’s borders at the expense of America’s national prestige and the rising cost of a government shutdown.
As CNN has reported, Democratic Whip James Clyburn introduced a resolution condemning the Iowa legislator, saying Monday: “I rise today to address what I call a tale of two Kings. One, a member of this body, who wondered out loud to the New York Times why the terms ‘white nationalism’ and ‘white supremacy are offensive. I will say to my colleague the terms are offensive because the concepts are evil…I have just introduced a resolution to express this august body’s disapproval of Mr. King’s comments and condemnation of white nationalism and white supremacy in all firms. So today I denounce the words of Rep. Steve King and I do so invoking the words of another king, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who if would have been allowed to live, would be celebrating his 90th birthday.