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How Dr. King Changed the World

Dr. Martin Luther King. Photo: Francis Miller/LIFE.

Most of us know Dr. Martin Luther King only from books and videos. We know he was a great man and an inspirational leader.

But we might not know just how big a change he helped make in our society.

Today, people of all races go to school side by side. We work and live together. Our movies and music are racially diverse. We read books by Jane Austen and Ama Ata Aidoo. We might date someone of our own race or another race; it’s not even an issue. Even the idea of race, for which people have engaged in so much hatred and bloodshed, is now almost a relic of a bygone age. Except in some medical situations*, race just isn’t a useful concept.

Things weren’t always like that. When our parents were growing up, society was a lot different. The extent of the difference shows how much Dr. King achieved.

In The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. King’s widow describes the bigotry and mistreatment that people endured because of their race:

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities for black and white children were unequal and unconstitutional. Further court decisions requiring school integration produced violent reactions in the South … All public facilities continued to be forcibly segregated. High taxes at the voting polling places prevented most blacks from being able to cast their ballots.

In Montgomery, some of the most degrading facets of segregation were the rules of the Montgomery City Bus Lines. Blacks were required to sit and stand at the rear of the buses, even if there were empty seats in the front section, which was reserved for whites. Furthermore, blacks had to pay their fares at the front of the bus, get off and walk to the rear to reboard through the back door.

All that because of someone’s skin color? Were those people crazy? Well, I guess that I shouldn’t judge. I’m just happy we don’t have insulting and hateful racial discrimination like that anymore. And it’s because of Dr. King’s fight for justice.

It wasn’t just his fight, of course. Dr. King led the movement, but thousands of people, black, white, Christian, Jewish, atheist, of every color and nationality and religion, followed him and fought beside him. To them, and to him, we owe the fact that we’ve grown up in a better, more rational, more compassionate, more equal society than the one only a few decades ago. It’s far from perfect, because racism and injustice still exist. But we’ve made great progress.

Let me share a few of Dr. King’s ideas:

  • “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
  • “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
  • “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars.”
  • “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

I really like that last one: “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

Even those of us who live today, Dr. King, who live in the kinder society you helped create: even we remember you, honor you, and thank you for what you did.

__________________
* Some diseases such as high blood pressure are more common in certain races. Some drugs are more effective or less effective depending on a patient’s race.


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

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