If the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had not been tragically slain on April 4, 1968, and had instead lived a long and successful life, there would be no Martin Luther King holiday today.
The sad irony of King’s terrible end has elevated him to the status of a mythical character in the eyes of many. More crucially, it let the American public face the prejudice and hatred he had been fighting against for 39 years, often before small or unsympathetic crowds.
There have been other African-Americans who have been bold and more influential than King, but he is one of the finest. Notably, Frederick Douglass escaped slavery to become the 19th century’s most prominent advocate for black rights in the United States.
Still, neither Frederick Douglass nor Harriet Tubman nor any of the other activists who have fought against inequity has ever had a holiday named after them. After his assassination, King’s death forced a stunned America to confront his legacy. During his lifetime, King was important, but not quite as beloved, adored, or heeded as he is now.
According to a Gallup survey conducted in 1966, 63% of respondents disapproved of King. Almost half of those surveyed had the least favorable opinion of King possible. King was admired by many and reviled by others, as are so many great leaders. During his lifetime, he gained widespread renown but never attained legendary status.
What shifted on that fateful day in 1968? Perhaps it was the shame of a nation that had only occasionally heeded his warnings and pleaded with him, such as when he led the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in support of Rosa Parks in 1955 and delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, eight years later.
By publicly opposing the war in Vietnam from the start, King lost the support of many in the early 1960s. During the tense civil rights movement of the 1960s, there was a lot of disagreement within the Black community regarding King, whose Gandhian commitment to nonviolence was challenged by many, most notably Malcolm X.
There is great significance in both King’s life and death as a martyr. Reminding us that it shouldn’t take a national catastrophe to comprehend the words, wisdom, and pleadings of a decent citizen for equality and justice (as happened on April 4, 1968).
There would be no Martin Luther King holiday today if the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had lived a long and fruitful life rather than being cruelly assassinated on April 4, 1968.
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