At the Mountaintop: Dr Martin Luther King's legacy still looms large

  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is greeted on his return to the United States after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 31, 1964 in Baltimore, Md.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen with his secretary, Miss Macdonald, in the pastor’s study of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., 1961.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech at the podium in 1960.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads a group of marchers from Selma to Montgomery to fight for black suffrage.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shakes hands w. crowd at Lincoln Memorial.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is welcomed with a kiss by his wife Coretta after leaving court in Montgomery, Ala., March 22, 1956. King was found guilty of conspiracy to boycott city buses in a campaign to desegregate the bus system, but a judge suspended his $500 fine pending appeal.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home with his wife Coretta and their first child Yolanda in May 1956 in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , right, chats with Greenwood African-Americans on their front porch during his door-to-door campaign, telling all African-Americans to register to vote and support his Miss. Freedom Democratic party. King arrived on July 21, 1964 in Greenwood for the beginning of a 5-day tour of Mississippi towns.
  • Leaders of March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom march with signs. (R-L) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Eugene Carson Blake, Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, Matthew Ahmann.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declares the Freedom Rides will continue at a press conference in Montgomery, Ala. John Lewis (with bandage) was beaten by the Klu Klux Klan earlier on in Montgomery.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gets a big welcome from several youngsters at Marion, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965 during visit after his release from jail at nearby Selma. Dr. King has sparked voter registration drives in both Perry and Dallas counties/
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his wife Coretta, daughter Yolanda, 5, and Martin Luther III, 3, sitting together as they play piano in their living room.
  • Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at home with his family in May 1956 in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen at a press conference in Birmingham, Ala., in 1962.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and wife, Coretta Scott King (R, w. bonnet and sunglasses) look energized as they lead demonstrators on the fourth day of their march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is seen with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the background on March 18, 1966 at the White House in Washington, D.C.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Malcolm X smile for photographers in Washington, D.C., March 26, 1964. They shook hands after King announced plans for direct action protests if Southern senators filibuster against civil rights bill. Malcolm, who has broken with the Black Muslims, predicted another march on Washington if a filibuster against the civil rights bill drags on.
  • During a visit to a pool hall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates some proficiency with a cue on Feb. 18, 1966 while campaigning in Chicago, Ill., for better living conditions for African Americans.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen in Atlanta, Ga., 1961.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is seen at home with his wife Coretta in Atlanta, Ga., 1961.
  • (L-R) Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sit pensively in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with 7080 sign across his chest for police mug shot, sits on a chair against wall in station house after his arrest for directing city-wide boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from behind, dressed in black robes and holding out his hands towards the thousands of people who have gathered to hear him speak near the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C on May 17, 1957 during the Prayer Pilgrimage. The Washington Monument can be seen in the background.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968) at the signing of the Civil Rights Act while officials look on, Washington D.C.
  • Through the smoke and fire from hundreds of torches walks American civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as he arrives with his wife Coretta to deliver the traditional address at the University of Oslo Festival Hall, on Dec. 11, 1964. Behind the reverend walks Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest associate.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with his wife Coretta participate in march from Montgomery, Ga., to the state capitol on March 19, 1965.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seen through sea of microphones, speaking before crowd of 25,000 civil rights marchers, in front of Alabama state capital building at the end of the Selma To Montgomery Civil Rights March, on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala.
  • A civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1957.
  • Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr. waves to supporters on Aug. 28, 1963 on the Mall in Washington D.C. (Washington Monument in background) during the “March on Washington”. King said the march was “the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.” 
  • Young men sing during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama.

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It’s been 30 years since Martin Luther King Day was celebrated officially for the first time. What has long been a holiday that many Americans take for granted, like everything MLK accomplished during his lifetime, it didn’t become possible without a fight. While today many conservative Republicans try to claim Dr. King’s legacy as their own, it was members of their party who were the staunchest opponents of federal recognition for the civil rights icon.

In fact, North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who was infamous for his insensitivity on issues of race, led a filibuster against the holiday legislation, alleging that King’s associations with Communists and personal infidelities should prevent him for being placed on “the same level as the father of our country and above many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s.” He also tried to get sealed FBI surveillance tapes revealed to public. Although President Ronald Reagan would eventually begrudgingly sign MLK Day into law in 1983, he too expressed reservations about King’s ideology. When asked if King was a Communist sympathizer, the former president reportedly said, “We’ll know in 35 years, won’t we?”

Today, King is hardly as controversial a figure as he was 30 years ago. He is the subject of feature films, the only non-president to get his own Washington, D.C. memorial, and his activism remains an inspiration for the civil rights generation but also the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which has sprung up in the U.S. following the deaths of several unarmed black youths. While his historic “I Have a Dream” speech remains his most accessible touchstone for mainstream Americans, it is his rebellious final years that may be most cherished by progressives.

In 1967, King alienated many allies and risked considerable popularity to come out early against military action in Vietnam. King was accused of overreach at a time when he declared in his oft-quoted speech in opposition to the war: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” 

Before an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the tender age of 39, King dedicated the last months of his life to a campaign to eliminate poverty. He realized then what is commonly known now, that the concentration of wealth and power among the wealthiest Americans was gradually ripping the country apart. Income inequality has become more than a buzzword; it’s a way of life that has stubbornly persisted for decades under the leadership of both Democratic and Republican presidents. For those who wish to uphold King’s legacy, this has become their fight – the realization of his vision of a completely fair society, where everyone has equal opportunity regardless of race.

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