“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – arguably one of the greatest orators our nation has ever produced – stood in a church in Memphis, Tennessee and made this vow during what would be his final public address.
His flight into Memphis the day before had been delayed due to a bomb threat, but that neither deterred him nor compelled him to change his travel plans.
African-American sanitation workers protesting unequal pay and working conditions in the city needed his support, and the threats on his life were not more urgent to him than his conviction that he was called to do God’s work.
As Dr. King delivered this historic speech, he could not know that he would be assassinated the next day outside his motel room at the age of 39; yet, his words foreshadowed his death.
His calling to do God’s work defined his life’s selfless mission. It forged a legacy that shaped the trajectory of our nation and eventually led to the designation of America’s first national holiday honoring an African American.
Today, every major city in America boasts a street, library, school, or recreation center named after this civil rights icon to remind us of his contributions and tremendous impact on government and civil society.
Nearly five decades after his death, his legacy steadfastly endures. Americans still reflect on his vision, remember his words, and mourn his loss. Marble, concrete, and stone monuments around the country are a testimony to the magnitude of respect it evokes.
But even as we reflect on its profound implications, we know the work to attain the ideals of that elusive Promised Land is far from over. Unequal treatment of minority communities and egregious civil rights violations continue to take place at an alarming rate.
In spite of numerous attempts to pass legislation banning racial profiling, law enforcement officers’ discriminatory practice of targeting citizens for suspicion of a crime based on race or religion is still lawful today in the 21st century.
Accounts of police brutality and misconduct against black men and women in America have dominated headlines in the last year – sparking heated debates and propelling communities into action.
These injustices have led to the formation of broad-based coalitions and movements like #BlackLivesMatter, which provides a new generation of social justice activists a visible platform to demand accountability, oversight, and criminal justice reform from Ferguson to Baltimore.
Dr. King’s ideas and vision are etched into the minds and hearts of countless Americans organizing to address structural and systemic issues plaguing our country from conflict-ridden urban streets to the powerful halls of Washington.
Emulating his example of non-violent resistance, Americans of all races and religions have banded together, marching in cities from coast to coast to protest the dehumanization and devaluation of black lives.
The steps our country has taken in the right direction come with a hefty price tag. Last June, our nation witnessed the brutal, racially motivated Charleston, S.C. church massacre that claimed the lives of nine innocent black people.
This event set in motion a sequence of nonviolent actions that led to the removal of the Confederate flag – widely seen to symbolize America’s racist heritage – from the state capitol grounds.
More recently, when city officials largely ignored concerns of toxic drinking water piped into the homes of a Michigan town that has a predominantly underprivileged, black population, citizen activists refused to remain silent.
The chorus of protests has steadily grown to reveal one of the largest scandals facing public officials in recent history. President Obama declared a federal emergency, and a federal investigation was launched, although the full extent of damage done is still unknown.
Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Decades after post-Reconstructionist era Jim Crow and the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, we have learned that the needle will only move in the right direction if we guide and prod it.
The Promised Land Dr. King referenced in his final speech alludes to a land where justice, equality, mutual respect, and fairness prevail for all.
The nation we live in today does not yet reflect these ideals, but that pledge is far from a distant memory, buried away in the pages of history books. The vow itself is a living, breathing covenant, and it is our collective duty to ensure that it is fulfilled.
We can do so by not only remembering Dr. King’s legacy, but also incorporating it into our daily lives; by being a voice for the voiceless and advocating for justice; and by recognizing our respective privilege and not allowing it to taint our vision.
There is no greater way to honor the man or his legacy than by committing to do our part to attain the ideals of that Promised Land and ensure that his pledge is fulfilled.