50 Years Later, Martin Luther King. Jr.’s “To the Mountaintop” Speech Still Inspires Us
Chronicling the Drama of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Hours

Beacon Press Authors and Staff Reflect on the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As US Marshal Cato Ellis serves an injunction on MLK, King and his aides (l to r), Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange and Bernard Lee, share a laugh to lighten the mood.
As US Marshal Cato Ellis serves an injunction on MLK, King and his aides (l to r), Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange and Bernard Lee, share a laugh to lighten the mood.

Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, we honor his legacy. We reached out to some of our authors and staff members to reflect on the impact of his global vision for social justice and his tireless work in the civil rights movement. We share their commemorative responses with you below.

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Helene Atwan“Although I was only fourteen at the time, and an immigrant kid at that, I will never forget, can never forget, the day Dr. King was assassinated. As we sat in shock around the TV, watching footage of his speeches and rallies, we felt certain that the entire world would honor and celebrate his memory, though we also knew some Americans would work violently to destroy his legacy. Even though I never heard him speak in person, I feel lucky over the years to have heard his speeches from time to time on audio and video, and most especially for the gift of his profoundest thoughts in his writings. Seeing Beacon become the curator of his works in print has been the greatest privilege of my career in publishing.”

—Helene Atwan, Beacon Press, Director  

 


Mary Frances Berry“On the day of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. was widely ‘buked’ and scorned by the mainstream media and even other activists for his insistence that the civil rights and human rights agenda was unfinished. Much of the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. lies in the work Coretta did to uphold his legacy after his assassination. The Martin Luther King National Holiday and the Humphrey-Hawkins bill are some often overlooked examples. Another example is her support of LGBT concerns. She also did everything she could in the Poor People’s Campaign, Martin’s goal of eroding economic inequality that still eludes us. Martin and Coretta left us the ingredients for success in movements: be persistent, willing to sacrifice, and stand by principle. A movement must have moral authority. Now, as then, the media won’t cover you if you don’t do keep on doing something. Someone has to go through the fire each time to make progressive change.”

—Mary Frances Berry, History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times  

 

“The assassination of Dr. King was an attempt to kill the righteous movement for Black freedom. He was a beacon among many leaders, and his legacy lives through the mass work of everyday people in today’s movement for Black lives fighting for racial, economic, and gender justice.”

—Charlene Carruthers, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements  

 

Thomas Norman DeWolf“Rev. King’s words in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, “. . . 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,” inspired the founding of Coming to the Table and its Vision for the United States “. . . of a just and truthful society that acknowledges and seeks to heal from the racial wounds of the past—from slavery and the many forms of racism it spawned.” CTTT brings together the descendants of people who were enslaved and the descendants of people who were enslavers who wish to acknowledge and heal the traumatic, historic, unhealed wounds from racism that are rooted in the history of slavery in the US. Those of us who regularly come together at the Table are exceedingly grateful for the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. May we continue to work together to realize his Dream.”

—Thomas Norman DeWolf, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan“As the child of a time when African Americans were relegated to the ‘back of the bus’ on all social and economic indicators, Rev. King was a guiding light toward the ‘promised land.’ His exemplary leadership of nonviolent civil disobedience resonates profoundly today as America falls headlong into an abyss of moral decline. In commemorating his assassination, we need to remember that social equality requires courage to obtain and vigilance to sustain. Rev. King gave wings to our dreams. Let us not forget to fly!”

—Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade 

 

Eboo Patel“Martin Luther King Jr was so many things—a civil rights leader, an African American hero, a paragon of nonviolence, and perhaps the most important American figure of the twentieth century. To these, I would like to add another title: Interfaith leader. King learned from and partnered with people of a variety of faith traditions. He spoke of Gandhi’s influence on him as second only to that of Jesus. He marched arm and arm with Rabbi Herschel in Selma. He was turned against the Vietnam War by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He quoted from different religious sources in his essays, public talks, and religious sermons. Recovering the part of King that built Interfaith bridges is essential inspiration and guidance for our era of religious conflict, tension, and polarization.” 

—Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith  

 

Gayatri Patnaik“The first time I heard Dr. King’s voice was when I was seven or eight years old, and new to the US, and I somehow selected a record to play which included his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I had never heard a voice like that and was transfixed, never imagining that decades later I’d have the great privilege to work on a series of books, The King Legacy, which featured his writings, lectures, and sermons.

King’s legacy means multiple things to me, but one of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned from him is that in life you have to be your own beacon, regardless of public opinion. It is now becoming more widely known that towards the end of his life, King was struggling—and that public opinion had, in many ways, turned against him. White Americans and a number of people in the civil rights movement were critical of his stance against the Vietnam War. But in spite of being out of favor, in spite of mind-numbing pressure and ill health, Dr. King persisted. King’s legacy is showing us, through his life, exactly what commitment looks like in action. In the new book, Redemption, Joseph Rosenbloom writes that after King’s death at age thirty-nine, Coretta Scott King spoke of the covenant King had made with himself: “that, by sacrificing himself, dying if necessary, for a cause that was ‘right and just,’ his life would end in the most redemptive way possible.” This is why, for me and many others, King’s legacy will always be something to be inspired by and to aspire to.”  

—Gayatri Patnaik, Beacon Press, Editorial Director 

 

Joseph Rosenbloom“What does the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. mean to me? Candidly, I would say that his dramatic life as an agent of virtuous social change inspired me to write a book about him. That’s a way that his legacy has influenced me directly.

But I would add that his example has influenced me profoundly in another way. His is a legacy that affirms the potential for one individual to shape the course of history by means of the power of his words, courage, and principled commitment to a great cause. That legacy has sustained my faith in American democracy and guided me as a lodestar in my own desire to lead a life of social value.” 

—Joseph Rosenbloom, Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours 

 

Jonathan Rosenblum“It’s time to reclaim the legacy of Dr. King, in all its complexities, with all of the contradictions of this amazing, bold, visionary, evolving—and flawed—modern-day prophet.

No, not the feel-good King of ‘I Have a Dream’ fame standing at the Lincoln Memorial. Rather, the King who called out the hypocritical clergy for claiming to support the movement while criticizing the impatience of civil rights activists. The King who defiantly called America a sick nation. The King who was unafraid to name the racism of the north, as well as of the south. The King who spoke about the intertwined triplets of evil—racism, economic oppression, and militarism.”

—Jonathan Rosenblum, Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement 

 

Jeanne Theoharis“The more I read and research Dr. King, the more I am humbled by how expansive his vision was and how much I have yet to learn about him. To me, one way to honor him on April 4 is to sit in his actual writings—not in pithy statements or short quotations, but in his books and full essays so that we might encounter the reach of his thinking.”

—Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History

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