On April 4, 1968 at around 6:00pm, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights activist had become an inspiration to people of all races for his non-violent method of protest, looking to love, wisdom, and understanding to seek equality for black people in America.
Even in an era before the internet, the terrible news spread quickly. The most famous example was a speech made by Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (You can hear the crowd gasp at the news, as they did not know about it before the speech.)
An exceptional impact
At the time of his death, King had achieved much. In 1963, he led famous peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, and the massive March On Washington. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 as his message of non-violence united and brought strength to the civil rights movement. This message also brought results.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which set in law equal rights for black people. The next year, the Voting Act guaranteed their right to vote as well. And he refused to rest on these achievements, speaking out against poverty and the Vietnam War. Throughout it all, he stuck to his belief in the power of non-violence to heal the country.
What has changed?
On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, it makes sense to ask: Has the world changed since then?
It is easy to forget how divided America was in the 1960s. The idea of black people gaining equal rights scared many in the country. Several notable assassinations occurred during the 1960s, including President Kennedy in 1963 and black civil rights leader Malcolm X in 1965. Even Robert Kennedy was himself shot and killed in June of 1968, just two months after King.
Today, political division and racial tension still exists across North America. But the country has also twice voted in a black president, Barack Obama. Black people have also held high places in government including President Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice.
King didn't single-handedly make such successes possible. But he did give people a peaceful guide to achieving their dreams of justice. His legacy touched all races, all genders, and all causes. You can still see it in how recent marches for women's rights, the environment, and tighter gun laws echo his March On Washington.
So has the world changed? Yes, it has. Old problems are not fully gone. But Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in bringing the idea of love and forgiveness to a divided world. As he himself said in February 1968 about how he'd like to be remembered:
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.