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Martin Luther King Jr: A Look Back - 2004-01-15


Were he alive, legendary American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 75 years old. Reverend King, who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 at the age of 39, championed non-violence as a means to end racial segregation and discrimination. His birthday is a national holiday in the United States.

Martin Luther King, Jr. made numerous public speeches in the 1950's and 60's, the height of America's civil rights movement. But none are more famous than an address he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963. Reverend King challenged America to live up to the promise to which its founding fathers had aspired nearly 200 years earlier.

"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note. This note was a promise that all men -- black men as well as white men -- would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

In what are perhaps his best-remembered words, Reverend King went on to articulate his vision of America.

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today."

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

Stanford University historian Clayborne Carson has written extensively on Martin Luther King. Mr. Carson compares the Baptist minister and 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner to another advocate of change from another land: former South African leader Nelson Mandela. He says, like Nelson Mandela, Reverend King took the struggle for justic and equality to a national and even an international stage. "King would certainly be the person who could articulate the goals of the struggle, and relate those goals to certain universal principles in a way that no one else before and since has done so well," says Mr. Carson.

Today, state-sanctioned racial segregation is long gone in the United States. Yet few would argue that America is truly color blind, or that racial discrimination has been eradicated. Clayborne Carson says Martin Luther King's message still rings true today. "Anyone who truly admires him needs to understand that [admiration] imposes a burden on us today to continue to work toward achieving these goals," he says.

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