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Thank You Dr. King, We Will Carry On

The profound impact he had on my life

Marian Wright Edelman | 4/11/2018, 12:13 p.m.
I first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person on April 19, 1960 during my senior year at ...

They applaud your great 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech but ignore the promissory note still bouncing at America’s bank of justice, waiting to be cashed by millions who are poor and non-white. We now have more than 40 million people who are poor in America including more than 13.2 million children although our gross domestic product is more than three times larger than in 1968. And the income gap between rich and poor in the United States continues at historically high levels and higher than in every other wealthy industrialized nation.

But you struggled on as the civil rights leadership splintered, as white Americans tired of black demands, and as the country became preoccupied with Vietnam. I marveled every night during the long Meredith March from Memphis to Jackson at your patient discussions with Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks and other SNCC leaders who wanted to exclude whites from the movement and push you to endorse all necessary means for change, including violence. You listened as they vented their justified frustrations about the slow pace of racial progress and you tried to reason with them, repudiating their proposed “Black Power” slogan and strategies without repudiating them. You taught me and others of your followers how to parse out the good from the not so good, and to always seek common ground. And when you had no immediate solution you gave others the courtesy of a respectful hearing.

In the years between Montgomery and Memphis, you listened, learned, grew, and spoke the truth about what you discerned, and resisted those who sought to ghettoize your concern for social justice and peace. After your opposition to the Vietnam War provoked a firestorm of criticism by whites, blacks, friends, and foes, you correctly asserted that “nothing in the commandments you believed in set any national boundaries around the neighbors you were called to love.”

Black people told you to be quiet, not anger President Johnson and jeopardize his support for civil rights and antipoverty efforts. White people told you to be quiet because you were not an expert on foreign policy, as if black leaders and citizens had no stake in a war tearing our nation apart and taking disproportionate numbers of lack children’s lives, forgetting it was the “experts” that got us into this ill-fated war in the first place. Some contributors deserted you as you called not only for an end to the Vietnam War but for a fairer distribution of our country’s vast resources between the rich and the poor. Why, they asked, were you pushing the nation to do more on the tail of the greatest civil rights strides ever and challenging a president who already had declared a war on poverty? You understood that our nation’s ills went deeper …

You blessed America with your rich faith, spiritual traditions, and prophetic preaching. You gave us your deep and abiding love and lifelong commitment to nonviolence. You shared your moral clarity and courageous truth telling. You left us your unrelenting commitment to justice for the poor and every one of God’s children. You showed us the way through your example and call for massive nonviolent action in the service of justice and peace. And you gave us your life.

Thank you. We will carry on.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.