Martin Luther King Day honors the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was born January 15, 1929, and who died from an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968. To the end of his life, he continued to lead a movement against racial discrimination, poverty and war. Several Washington, D.C. area residents talked recently with VOA about what his life has meant to them.
In the 1960s, a hundred years after the Civil War, African-Americans were still restricted both by legal segregation and brutal custom. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, led the struggle for equal rights, using only persuasion and nonviolent action, a strategy of peaceful resistance for which he was jailed several times.
Isaiah Leggett met him twice. "To hear him live and to be in his presence was awe-inspiring,” says Mr. Leggett, who is now a law professor at Washington’s Howard University, and a candidate for political office in neighboring Maryland. But as a young civil rights activist, he was on the other side of the established order.
“One of the responsibilities that I had as a student leader was to lead demonstrations, marches and protests, to try to effect change,” Mr. Leggett remembers. “And change for us in the South was pretty profound, because at the time it was difficult for us to eat at certain lunch counters. Schools were segregated, all the public accommodations, housing, what have you."
"It's about believing in something. And he led us in that direction,” says Maryland resident Elsie Cooper of Dr. King. Holding her new grandson Darius on her lap, Mrs. Cooper says she doesn't think she'd have her government job or comfortable home if it weren't for King’s leadership of the civil rights movement. “It made a big difference in the way people really think,” she says, “And not just blacks or Caucasians, it's everybody."
Darius’s mother, Iris Cooper, was planning to spend the Martin Luther King holiday looking for a job. Like most Americans, Ms. Cooper is too young to have any memory of Martin Luther King. But she feels he made all the difference in her life and her children's. “The things that he stood for and the things that he fought for and I guess died for, are available to me now,” she says. “Had he not, I'm not sure whether the opportunities for everybody would be available."
Later that day in Washington, some of the high school students who make up Operation Understanding DC, a black-Jewish alliance that works against anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of discrimination, met to talk about Martin Luther King's legacy. The students want to do more than revere his memory: they seem to hope to model their lives on King’s.
"He's helped me to understand that we all don't start large, we don't just magically become super-leaders. It takes time,” Maurice Wilkins told a reporter. “There's still so much work to be done,” Josh Walker said. “A lot of people forget that the civil rights movement is still going on today.” Okezie Nwoka reminded the group, “Most of the marches on the bridges and on the streets were led by students like us."
"I think it's important to remember that Martin Luther King wasn't born a hero,” Alison Wollack commented. “He wasn't very much older than me. Yet he kind of rose to the occasion, and put his life on the line, and fought for rights, and I think it's inspiring to know that normal people can do great things.”
“He got a lot of work done, and good work done, in the short period of time he was on the earth,” said Liane Alves. “And it's just more motivation for me and my friends in Operation Understanding D.C. to carry on that legacy."