I realized with a shock today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the age I am now when he died. He was 39.
By age 39 he was a national leader, a pastor, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a published author, a Nobel laureate, a husband, a father. He had organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, numerous protests and voter registration drives, and the historic 1963 march on Washington.
He changed the way America understands itself. He challenged all of us to look into each others' eyes and see there possibility and promise. He made this world a better place. All before the age of 40.
When I think about Dr. King, especially when I hear recordings of his speeches, I cannot help but envision a significantly older person. He had a presence -- and more importantly, a gravitas -- that people do not often acquire that young. I wonder how much of that perception is simply denial on my part about no longer being young. I wonder, also, how much of that reflects how our society has changed in the last 40 years.
My generation, it seems, is taking a long time to grow up. We seem to spend more time in school, move around a lot, switch careers like socks, marry much later (if at all), and finally get around to having children just when that starts becoming more difficult. I know that's an over-generalization, but I think there are enough people who fall into that mold to make it a bona fide phenomenon.
I wonder who the Great Men and Great Women of my generation will be. I wonder who among us will eventually, perhaps in our 60s, get around to changing the world. I hope that, late bloomers though we may be, some of us can accept the challenge that Dr. King has left us as his legacy.
And so we still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom. Yes, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt, and we have crossed a Red Sea that had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance, but before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice. We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand. Yes, we need a chart; we need a compass; indeed, we need some North Star to guide us into a future shrouded with impenetrable uncertainties.
August 16, 1967 address to the SCLC, "Where Do We Go From Here?"
The text of Dr. King's major speeches can be found here.