It has been 45 years since Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
King's most celebrated speech was given at the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke these words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
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.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation making the third Monday of January a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. It was first observed on 1986.
In signing the law, President Reagan said:
Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.
But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, "All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, '... land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"
In his 2013 Proclamation of the federal holiday, President Barack Obama said:
A half-century later, the march of progress has brought us closer than ever to achieving Dr. King's dream, but our work is not yet done. Too many young people still grow up in forgotten neighborhoods with persistent violence, underfunded schools, and inadequate health care, holding little hope and few prospects for the future. Too many Americans are denied the full equality and opportunity guaranteed by our founding documents. Today, Dr. King's struggle reminds us that while change can sometimes seem impossible, if we maintain our faith in ourselves and in the possibilities of this Nation, there is no challenge we cannot surmount.
Dr. King's work was based on deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ. He spoke of love and justice from a Biblical perspective. In 1957, Dr. King gave a sermon entitled Loving Your Enemies. He used as his text Matthew 5:43-48:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Of Jesus command, King said:
…it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.
Dr. King's legacy continues. But much of his work remains for us to carry on.