Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has written a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. in which he declares that the message of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience is as relevant today as it was when he preached it way back then.
On this day when we mark what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday, I cannot help but get past this historical tidbit that few — if any — historians ever seem to examine.
How in the name of all that is holy did Martin Luther King Jr. summon the poise to stand before the world as he did at such a young age?
MLK was 39 years of age when James Earl Ray gunned him down in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Thirty-nine! That’s all.
Yet, it seemed at the time as if he’d been on the national stage forever. At least that’s my memory.
He was 34 when he stood before those hundreds of thousands of spectators on the Washington Mall to deliver the famed “I Have a Dream” speech that energized a generation of young black and white Americans. He would be 36 when he led the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge at Selma, Ala.
How was this young man able to stand often in church pulpits, make appearances on national TV news-talk shows, speak to mass gatherings of supporters, accepted a Nobel Peace Prize and became one of the leading voices of protests against the Vietnam War — all before he turned 40. Where did he acquire that wisdom? Or was he born with it?
He wouldn’t reach that milestone age. There would be no black balloons, gag gifts for his becoming an “old man,” or silly jokes and pranks from his friends and family members.
It’s been said of President Kennedy that his life was one of untapped potential, given that he, too, died at a young age.
I cannot stop thinking on this day what impact Martin Luther King Jr. might have had on his beloved nation had he been given the chance to reach middle age, let alone grow old.
As Dees points out: “In his speech of March 25, 1965, King spoke of the nation we could become – a ‘society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.’”
He was just 36 years of age.