The moral arc
Civil rights leaders, preachers and politicians stood together on the balcony of what was once the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis (and is now the National Civil Rights Museum) to commemorate King's life. Reverend Jesse Jackson stood solemnly among them; a lifetime ago he was on that balcony when King was assassinated by a white nationalist
. Below him a crowd gathered to mark the passing and memory of one of America's most vaunted figures. The message from the speakers was clear: carry on his legacy.
But in 2018, that is still easier said than done. On nearly every available
measurement of wealth, education and social mobility African Americans continue to lag behind whites. In some areas the disparity between the opportunities for white Americans and black Americans is almost indistinguishable from where it was in 1968. The incarceration rate for African Americans is a national disgrace
. Many states are fighting a rearguard action to defend laws that entrench the suppression of black votes
. And while the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police are slowly declining, the Black Lives Matter movement remains a target of public scorn. Seven in 10 Americans believe the state of race relations in their country is 'poor'.
At the ceremony civil rights icon Diane Nash
electrified the crowd with the following words, "If the road to defeat Jim Crow
[reactive laws that enforced racial segregation in the South] led to the jail house, we were going to go there. If it went to being beaten up, or sacrificing our lives, we were going to do that."
It was a powerful reminder of the oft-forgotten realities of the civil rights movement: that its supporters were beaten, murdered, tortured and jailed.
Walking the walk
It is believed that King succeeded where many others struggled partly because his message was one of incremental change, legalistic language and religious affinity. By appropriating the terminology and philosophy of the oppressor - and couching his movement in their own terms - King went a long way to winning over the public, if not the state. Or to look at it another way, such is the burden of minority activism that even the terms of debate must be decided by the majority.
But it wasn't just his message, it was the man himself that we must celebrate. King's extraordinary humility and inner strength are widely admired today, but back then he was jailed, hounded in the press and personally singled out by the FBI director. The FBI's illegal COINTELPRO division even wiretapped and blackmailed King with the explicit goal of trying to force him to commit suicide before he could accept his Nobel Peace Prize. King is rightfully lionised for championing the Gandhian belief in peaceful protest. And yet peaceful protests by minorities continue to be undermined and delegitimised by American authorities even today.
Abstractions and detractions
50 years on it is the very idea of King's struggle for equality that has now assumed the greatest currency in modern American discourse. This week President Donald Trump and his deputy Mike Pence both praised King and urged Americans to carry on his legacy. But it may be argued that his legacy was epitomised last year by the African American football players who knelt in protest during the national anthem - an action that both Trump and Pence vilified as "un-American".
A common refrain these days from those unwilling or unable to discuss America's racial turmoil is "don't politicise the issue". That's an awkward phrase, not only because it ungracefully obfuscates the fact that all human rights issues are inherently political, but also because politicising the issue is precisely
what King would have done. The simple fact is that by placing King on a pedestal and viewing his struggle as a closed chapter in history many Americans escape the harsh realities that both he and contemporary minority groups continue to endure.
Carrying the torch
It would be incorrect however, to form the impression that nothing whatsoever has changed. The very idea of an African American president would have been laughable 50 years ago. And in state houses and courts across the country the African American community is also slowly edging closer to a more equitable share of America's resources and rights. Just this week in Maryland the state government forced through a veto-proof bill to automatically register people to vote if they apply for a drivers' license, state ID card, health insurance or social service. Much work is still to be done but it's through measures like these that America will ultimately carry the torch for King.