Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up 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.
— Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, April 3, 1968
Those words were among the last spoken publicly by Martin Luther King Jr. It’s as if he knew they would be.
In his last speech, Dr. King talked about different movements in history he would liked to have seen in person. He talked about the problem of poverty, not just in the United States but around the world. He talked about economic justice, and the purchasing power of America’s black population.
But most strikingly, he talked about
the 1958 stabbing that almost killed him. Dr. King talked about his brush with mortality and how he had survived to stand alongside the people who rose up in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.
He had survived to stand with the sanitation workers on strike in Memphis. To ask for the dignity of a fair wage in exchange for a hard day’s work.
He had been to the mountaintop. And he knew his work would continue, even after his death. Fifty years after his assassination on April 4, 1968, we have indeed seen much progress — but there is much left to be done.
The civil rights movement that Dr. King helped lead has achieved monumental legal victories, changed legislation and provided protections for black people that would have been unthinkable a century ago. But stunning disparities remain.
Only 1 in 10 black respondents to a recent Associated Press poll said they think the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.
The median income for black families in the Charleston area is less than half that of white families, according to a recent report for the College of Charleston Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Unemployment is three times higher for black residents than white residents. Over the past few years, black people have been more likely to be stopped by North Charleston police, less likely to graduate high school, more likely to die from treatable health conditions and more likely to spend time in prison. The list goes on.
Eliminating these disparities will not be easy. Resolving these injustices will be hard work. It will be uncomfortable. It will be painful.
But we must do the work.
In his last speech, Dr. King talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan. He considered all the reasons those passersby might not have stopped to help their fellow man.
Maybe they were worried about robbers on a dangerous road. Maybe they were maintaining religious purity. Maybe, he joked, they felt it better to tackle the broader problem of crime rather than help a single suffering individual.
But Dr. King lived life like the Samaritan.
“The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’” he said. “The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, that question is as valid as ever. If we do not stop to help our fellow men and women, what will happen to them?