A Legacy: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.

Historic Sites & Memorials

When my husband the architect was in graduate school, he and I spent several months working on an entry for the Martin Luther King Memorial design competition.  He did all of the design work -- the site plan, the aesthetic choices -- but I helped him with the themes, the words,  and the ideas.  And while we didn't win the competition, the experience was a remarkable education for me.

Of course, I'd read about Dr. King .  I'd even had lunch with his daughter, Rev. Bernice A. King, when I won a writing competition at the Sixth Annual Peace Prize Forum .  We had studied his life in school.  I knew that he'd grown up in Atlanta, Georgia.  His home, his church, and his gravesite are now part of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta.

I had been to the Lincoln Memorial , and I knew parts of the "I Have a Dream" speech by heart...

But as I dove in to his writings and his sermons, I realized that my biography of Dr. King was the sanitized, Hallmark-card version.  He served as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama -- the church which became the center of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  But an Alabama pastor does not win the Nobel Peace Prizewithout having a profound impact on the world.  And he did.  Embodying Gandhi's principle of nonviolent protest, Dr. King led a generation speaking out against prejudice, injustice, violence, and poverty.

He was a powerful speaker.  His words transformed a nation.  And he was a courageous man.  Certainly, he was human -- as are we all.  But that fact only makes his work and his service to our country, to the cause of peace, and to the cause of equality all the more important.

I am most partial, I think, to Dr. King's last speech.  He invoked the story of Moses as he spoke on April 3, 1968.  He didn't know that he would be assassinated the next day which makes his words even more poignant:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now;  we’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  And so I’m happy tonight;  I’m not worried about anything;  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The next day on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was assassinated.  The hotel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum -- a stirring experience.

After his death, his wife, Coretta Scott King, founded the King Center in Atlanta as a living memorial to her husband and his work.  It is located within the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta.

The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. is still in the planning and fundraising stage, but it is to be located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial on the Mall.  Many cities have memorialized Dr. King.  There are plaques and monuments in communities large and small.  There are also several national historic sites associated with Dr. King -- places where he lived, worked, and spoke -- as well as other sites associated with the Civil Rights Movement.

But one of the best ways to know Dr. King is to read his words.  They are powerful reminders of the work we have yet to do.  While this week we inaugurate our first African American president, the work is not yet done.  But there is hope.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you are looking for a good book about Dr. King, I highly recommend Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, a chronicle of his life told through his own speeches and letters.