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Observing MLK Day: Message never more important than now

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American leader whose life was ended by an assassin’s bullet almost 48 years ago.

King was just 39 years old when he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Contrary to the U2 song (“In the Name of Love”) that includes reference to the killing of King, it wasn’t early morning but early evening in Memphis when shots rang out.

My memory of that terrible event includes the time of day as my parents and I were watching television after dinner that evening. CBS, of course, because it was the only channel we had in the days before cable but the particular show that was on, I don’t recall.

But the bulletin came on, saying Dr. King had been killed.

At the time, I was 9 years old and what I vividly remember to this day is my parents’ shocked response. My mother wept and my dad kept shaking his head over and over.

After she dried her tears, my mom talked to me about Dr. King and how he preached non-violence as a way of change. It was one of the first times she talked to me like I was a grown up, that I do recall.

It has been 48 years since MLK was murdered and the struggles he led for fairness and equality continue. In some ways in many parts of our nation, positive changes have been made. But bigotry is still too commonplace and ignorance grabs the limelight far too often.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the day honoring Dr. King became a federal holiday, long past my own school years. But it is my hope that young people all across America are being taught about King’s efforts to advance the cause of civil rights through nonviolent means.

Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and his words still ring out with great meaning:

  • “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
  • “The time is always right to do what is right.”
  • “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
  • “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
  • “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
  • “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  • My favorite: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

And of course, this from his amazing “I Have A Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963: “… And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …”

At a time in our country when division seems to be made wider at campaign stops around the nation, when candidates for our highest office seem to reach down to appeal to the basest of notions, my dream is that people once again move toward cooperation and peaceful discussion. That children of all ethnicity and religious background be accepted and encouraged to learn, to become integral part of our society.

My hope is we all start to respect one another, to appreciate the diversity that’s part of our country’s strength and to stand up for each and every person’s rights. That we strive toward an America of true equal opportunity.

That we keep Dr. King’s message in our hearts not just the third Monday in January, but every day of every year.

Editor’s note: Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.