Opinion: Now is the Time to Rededicate Ourselves to Dr. King’s Work and Legacy

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his most famous speech on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, I was in Charleston, South Carolina preparing for my second year as a history teacher at segregated C. A. Brown high school. I first met the civil rights icon during the weekend of October 14-16, 1960 while serving as a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The last time I saw Dr. King was July 31, 1967, when we had lunch in the home of Septima Poinsett Clark who ran the Freedom School on Johns Island and taught Rosa Parks at Highlander School in Tennessee. The civil rights movement was truly a church-centered movement, and having grown up in a parsonage as the eldest son of a minister, the leaders of the movement were men and women who were like family to me.

Now that we have the long-dreamed-of memorial to Dr. King, I marvel at the progress we have made with the election of our nation’s first African-American President, and yet we still confront significant obstacles. Dr. King’s work continues today. Time was a very important theme in Dr. King’s writings and speeches. In April 1963, he wrote from the Birmingham jail in response to fellow clergymen who called his actions there “unwise and untimely:”

“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God… We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

So when the time came for Dr. King to speak at the March on Washington, he returned to this fixation on time. “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Dr. King’s acute awareness of time always fascinated me and his refusal to be deterred by it still motivates me. It remains poignant especially today. Although the “I Have a Dream” portion of that Lincoln Memorial speech – 48 years ago – captured the emotions of the public and precipitated the name by which it is known, Dr. King’s focus on time and resources gave the speech the substance that should sustain all of us today.

The memorial to Dr. King that will be dedicated this fall has been a long time coming. At this moment in time, I’m hopeful it can do for our country what the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom did in 1963 – bring people of good will together to overcome the efforts of people of ill will. I’m hopeful this occasion may begin to relieve the anxiety I see among so many Americans today; the anxiety resulting from tough economic times and the inaction of political leaders who reject the art of compromise essential to forming a more perfect union.

Too often overlooked in Dr. King’s speeches and activities is his focus on jobs and opportunity. Dr. King said he refused to believe the vault of opportunity in this great country is empty. Yet in 2011, the gap continues to grow wider between those who enjoy great wealth and those who struggle to get by with little thought of ever getting ahead. What more proof do we need that “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability?”

Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s work. A good place to start is with the Congressional Black Caucus’ jobs agenda to enable America to win the future. In this time of limited resources and global competition, we must make smart investments in infrastructure, innovation and education.

With this fitting tribute to Dr. King, we must work to do justice to the legacy of the leaders of the movement by seizing the moment to create a vibrant economy that provides opportunity and justice for all.

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