Today we celebrate the birthday of one of America’s greatest leaders, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 87. What a different place America might have been had he lived. He was gunned down in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was rallying in support of the sanitation workers’ strike after workers had been killed on the job due to unsafe conditions. MLK is revered by National Consumers League and labor leaders alike.
What made MLK such a great leader? He rose above the fray, and he made connections with issues beyond his own sphere. He opposed the Vietnam War, he fought the militant and divisive image of Malcolm X, the public face of the Nation of Islam, he spoke against anti-Semitism, and he drew connections between worker protections and the civil rights movement.
Dr. King’s legacy as a civil rights icon and irreplaceable voice of humanity and nonviolence is very much with us today.
As I watched the 2015 Kennedy Center Awards, I thought of Dr. King and how I think he would have been proud of the mosaic of honorees that night. He played an enormous role in making all of this possible by waging a struggle for civil rights for all Americans. And though there is much work to be done and American has many problems ahead of us, the Kennedy Center Awards evening showcases America’s best qualities:
George Lucas, the Star Wars creator and director, a hugely original creative mind and a white man – married to an African American woman; Cicely Tyson, a 90 year old African American actress with a stunning list of credits who is currently – yes currently – acting in the Broadway show The Gin Game with James Earl Jones.
Rita Moreno, an 84 year old Puerto Rican dancer, singer and actress who has won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and Tony award
Seiji Ozawa, Japanese-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who served for 29 years in that role
Carole King, a Jew from Brooklyn whose iconic hits like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Up on the Roof” have been recorded by African American singers like the Drifters and singers like Ben E King; and whose song “Natural Woman” was stunningly performed by Aretha Franklin on the Kennedy Center Stage before an audience that included America’s first African American President and first lady.
We miss the wisdom and presence of the great leaders, like Dr. King, but his legacy is with us every day.