“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
As the 92nd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approaches, I wanted to reflect upon the enduring impact of his life—his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and his poignant, prophetic messages, which continue to resonate with me and many others, decades after his death.
Although I was nearly eight years old at the time of Dr. King’s assassination, I remember some of the TV news stories covering the accounts of the days and hours before his death, the reactions to his death across this country, and the intense sadness that enveloped the community in the days that followed April 4, 1968. Even as a child, I recognized that this particular man’s death marked a pivotal moment during an extremely turbulent period – one that would clearly define the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Of course, long before I fully understood the impact of Dr. King’s poignant and inspirational messages and his life, I heard recordings of his speeches that were often played in my home, along with my father’s captivating recitations of those speeches. Whether it was a Saturday morning recitation that accompanied my Dad’s breakfast preparation, or an evening of his soulful delivery as he watched me complete my homework and prepared himself for a new workday, his recitations were powerful and awe-inspiring!
It was a year or so after Dr. King’s death when I began to slowly grasp the enormous influence of his prolific writings, his skills as an orator, and the legacy of his profound and insightful words. These expressions helped to transform the collective struggles of African Americans for justice and equality into the revolutionary Civil Rights Movement.
So, every time I heard my Dad at home repeat the stirring messages of Dr. King with such courage and resolve—with or without any listeners within ear shot— I sensed my father’s heartfelt, deep connection to the meaning and relevance of those messages. It was almost like my Dad discovered a new appreciation for and understanding of the substance and significance of those messages every time he recited them.
Now, when I reflect on those moments, I realize Dr. King’s words resonated so much with my Dad because these two men were contemporaries—both had witnessed and experienced the horrors and indignities of growing up and coming of age in the Jim Crow South. Both grew up during this period where every facet of a Black person’s daily existence was subjected to the degrading whims of systemic, legalized racial segregation and discrimination—inequities that killed, wounded, and disrupted the hopes and dreams of people then, leaving the remnants of that ugly legacy to contend with today (e.g., educational inequalities, housing disparities, health care disparities, income inequality, voter suppression, over-policed communities).
From 1969 to 1970, my father’s appreciation for Dr. King’s speeches served to powerfully undergird my entire family as we prepared to enter into spaces and places that sometimes felt unwelcoming and unsafe. At the time, both of my parents were teachers in Louisiana at all-Black schools; I chose to attend the K-12, all-Black public school where my father taught. At the end of that school year, my parents and I became part of a parish-wide school reassignment effort. This occurred more than a decade after public schools in the state defied orders, deliberately resisting the desegregation rulings as directed by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.
As the new school year began in the fall of 1969, it was my first day as a fourth grader in a desegregated school; it was a climate teeming with conflicting emotions—uncertainty, hopefulness, unfamiliarity, and weariness—from the students and the teachers. I am certain that I was able to navigate that year and the years that followed because of my Dad’s recitations of Dr. King’s speeches and both of my parents’ efforts to reinforce and nurture consistent messages of love, hope, courage, and self-worth — messages that helped me to understand and weather the storms of intolerance and bigotry. Their messages helped me to learn the importance of standing in my truth and speaking my truth about my experiences—even when they were demonized and created discomfort for some.
Years after Dr. King’s death, his messages remain relevant and compelling because there is an urgent need for change today—especially as this country confronts a racial reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s horrific murder and rioters’ repugnant flaunting of the Confederate flag as they stormed into the United States Capitol Building.
This moment serves as a reminder of the importance of acknowledging and addressing the need for actual social justice—a reckoning that Dr. King and other civil rights leaders’ initiated during the 1950s and 1960s— to rid this country of the deeply embedded remnants of the egregious and inhumane legacy of slavery and systemic racism. But such a transformation requires that people acknowledge the truth, speak the truth, and commit to genuine change instead of empty rhetoric. True remedies are needed to ensure that all people can indeed be the recipients of equal access, equal opportunities, and equal justice.
Today, as I celebrate Dr. King’s life, messages, and contributions, I am especially grateful for my father’s repeated recitations of Dr. King’s inspirational speeches because they highlighted aspects of my history and they reaffirmed, for me, the importance of Black people’s existence in and contributions to this country— reminding my family and other families how much the story of African Americans is inextricably linked to the American story. In his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King emphasized how our lives, our destinies, and our freedoms as people are deeply connected. Therefore, it is impossible to tell the truthful story of America without telling the story of African Americans—not as others, but as people!
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech ( March 31, 1968)
Editor, NCU Office of Academic Affairs