Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to assist the cause of striking sanitation workers who held up now-famous signs that read “I AM A MAN,” and he was shifting his focus to what he called The Poor People’s Campaign. King had been a highly successful leader during the Civil Rights movement’s major events – the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 – 1956, the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 – and he had only suffered one (debatable) defeat: the lesser-known the Albany Movement of 1961 – 1962. His “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” remain two of the most iconic texts in American literature.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most important and recognizable American who never held a political office, a notion that is supported by the fact that his birthday is a federal holiday nonetheless. Though he was only 39 years old when he was killed, King changed not only our nation but the world in the twelve-and-a-half years between Rosa Parks’ arrest on December 1, 1955 and his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Twelve-and-a-half years. Just think about that. The man’s impressive set of accomplishments were done just over a dozen years.
And how we have to think about young he was: only 26 years old when he led the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, and not yet 30 when said these words in his now-famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech in May 1957:
Stand up for justice. Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. And even after you’ve crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil and gigantic mountains of opposition. But I say to you this afternoon: Keep moving. Let nothing slow you up. Move on with dignity and honor and respectability.
Six years later, King was only 34 when he proclaimed “I Have A Dream” in Washington, DC. Most people are just getting started. Sadly, Martin Luther King, Jr. was finished too soon.