The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died 40 years ago today in Memphis at the hand of an assassin.
King was one of America's greatest leaders. His work and legacy of non-violent protest against ubiquitous racial discrimination and injustice reshaped the consciences and hearts of millions in our nation and abroad.
King's biblically based message was enhanced by extraordinary oratorical gifts, and he inspired boldness and bravery in many who had long trembled in the deep shadows and half-citizenship of racism and segregation.
King's message offered people of all races and ethnicities hope that the universal dream of brotherhood and a fully shared humanity could be realized in quantifiable actions.
His death happened in a decade of violence and upheaval in American culture. Only five years earlier, President John F. Kennedy died by an assassin's bullet in Dallas.
Two months after King's murder, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a New York Democrat who was the slain president's brother, died by assassination in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Thousands rioted in more than 100 American cities after King's death.
Millions in total protested and rioted through most of the decade and into the 1970s in opposition to America's massive involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was Sen. Kennedy who offered perhaps the most enduring words of reason, grace and calm after King died. He was speaking in Indianapolis, where he told a crowd of people in anguish over the day's events:
“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”
King was working for that justice in Memphis, where he went to lead a campaign for sanitation workers protesting low wages and working conditions.
Many have wondered what might have been had King lived to the full measure of his years, but the power of his cause and spirit continue in their transformative power.
Racial reconciliation at its deepest level rises from an embrace of the principles King espoused, person by person, place by place, situation by situation, and around the world.
The night before King was killed, he preached his final sermon, seemingly prescient that his time was limited:
“Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I have looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land.”
King gave us all the vision, and our task remains fulfilling it.