Today marks fifty years since our nation was robbed of its greatest moral leader in an unwarranted and unforgivable act of violence. On this day in Memphis in 1968, one gunshot cut short a life dedicated to justice and a love of others.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember a man who stood against injustice and stared down unbridled hatred without fear or reciprocal malice. We remember a man who preached nonviolence, who fought with his mind rather than his fists, and who forever changed the trajectory of our history for the better.
All this is true, but it is not the full story. On this monumental day, we must not be led to believe falsehoods about Dr. King that aim to obscure his legacy or minimize the great work that we as a society must continue to do.
Though remembered kindly by history, Dr. King was hated by countless Americans in his own time. Castigated as a rabble-rouser and imprisoned for the same work for which he is now revered, Dr. King was labeled a criminal.
He was not the uncontroversial and widely loved figure who we remember today. He was explicitly political and provocative, agitating for full citizenship and equal rights for Black Americans who would have been kept as chattel and catalogued as livestock hardly more than one lifetime earlier. His advocacy for economic justice for the poor confronted the up-by-the-bootstrap myths that had undermined the working poor of our country since its foundation. None of this made Dr. King a beloved figure in his lifetime.
His premature death was not the galvanizing moment it is often depicted as today. It was instead a calculated assassination that cut short a movement with much work to complete. By the time of the Reverend’s death, our nation did indeed have the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but it had still come nowhere close to a time when our culture and our love for one another made such laws unnecessary. In reality, we still have not yet reached such a point.
Last year, 223 Black Americans were killed by police officers in this country. In 2016, Black households had a median net worth of around $17,000, compared to $171,000 for White families. 1,408 out of every 100,000 Black Americans are imprisoned compared to only 275 out of every 100,000 White Americans – and this is before we address those living under probation and other iterations of control by a carceral state. In our majority Black city, a quarter of residents are living in poverty, and that figure increases to one out of three when we look at our city’s children.
These statistics are not outliers, and it is pointless to continue to list additional figures. On any metric, our country – and our city in particular – are very far from fulfilling Dr. King’s dream. There is much work to be done, and it is all of ours to share in.
The Reverend’s rhetoric was often as lofty as his aspirations, but he was clear-eyed in the face of the policy changes that needed – and still need – to be made. He knew that there could not be justice until our culture was cured of its addiction to violence. He saw that opportunity could not be equal until educational funding was truly equitable. He understood that whether segregation was enforced by law or by custom, the deleterious effects on people of color and our entire society were the same.
We know that in Baltimore, we cannot discuss urgent issues like violent crime and unemployment without addressing the deep underlying issues of poverty and systemic racism. We see that when economic opportunities occur, they do so in areas of lighter pigmentation. We understand that children treated as delinquents and exposed to violence, trauma, drug abuse, and lead poisoning cannot be healed with a detention center or a trial as an adult. The core issues at work on April 4, 1968 are still shaping our city, our country, and our politics on April 4, 2018.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, let us not dilute his memory with revisions of his history or quotes taken out of context. Instead, let us complete his work by taking resolute, measurable action in our daily lives, in our communities, and in the halls of our legislatures. Dr. King had a dream. Let us now do the work of realizing it.