On this day, fifty years ago— April 4 of 1969, to be exact— an assassin murdered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., robbing society of an inspiring leader, iconic civil rights champion, and remarkable human being. Since then, subsequent generations of activists have continued to strive for social progress— eradicating inequality, promoting dignity, empowering and communities— in order to uphold his legacy across all spectrums of society.
It’s been half a century, but today, his message resonates with me more profoundly than ever. That’s because, for the first time, my generation is taking its turn to pick up Dr. King’s legacy of activism.
For the first time, Dr. King’s fight is mine.
Until recently, I found it easier to remain silent about the problems I witnessed in society. In the face of racism and violence, I chose to look away. In short, I fell into the trap of the American moderate, described so eloquently by Dr. King in Letter from Birmingham in Jail. By preferring “the absence of tension” to the “presence of justice,” I chose to stand in the way of progress.
It took the loss of 17 high school lives three hours from my school to change my mind.
I firmly believe that each of us has the potential to improve society, but what separates change-makers from the rest is their willingness to face present challenges head-on. It only takes a single act of tragedy or injustice to transform us from passive opinion-holders to active history-makers. For Dr. King, that moment of reckoning was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched him from a little-known community activist to a nationwide spokesperson for change. For many in my generation, including myself, it was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that instigated the embrace of activism.
For the first time, I found myself closely scrutinizing Dr. King’s activist methods— his theories about civil disobedience, his oratory styles, his political strategies— in order to become a better activist against gun violence. For example, just last month, I helped organize my first political protest: my high-school walkout against gun violence. As a chronic rule-follower, I was extremely worried about protecting students from disciplinary consequences. That’s when one of my fellow activists brought up an important point: in 40 years of living, Dr. King was arrested 30 times. Ultimately, she said, no progress was possible without a little sacrifice.
I was uncomfortable at first, but as the truth of her words sank in, I found myself reevaluating what I’d ever believed about my role in society. I found myself reaching the kinds of conclusions that Dr. King himself might have reached, less than a century ago; for example, sometimes progress is preferable to peace, and that being in the majority doesn’t absolve you of your duty to do good. And most importantly, I found myself deciding to follow the path laid down by Dr. King and numerous activists of color before me. Because our lives do end the day we become silent about things that matter.
On this day, fifty years ago— April 4 of 1969, to be exact—an assassin silenced Dr. King. But in doing so, he amplified his voice. Because his voice is now ours, and it’s up to us to carry his torch and continue his fight. And that, perhaps, is the greatest testament to his legacy.
Photo: Gage Skidmore