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King’s profound impact 50 years later

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on March 28, 1968, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in Memphis to support the strike, a move that cost him his life when he was fatally shot on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis on April 4, 1968. Credit: AP / Sam Melhorn

On April 4, 1968, my mother’s screams ripped through our living room at home in Amityville as anchorman Walter Cronkite announced the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. I was 6 years old and though at the time I had only a vague understanding of who King was, his killing would serve as the impetus for me coming to know and understand his life deeply.

That same year, I presented a book report about him to the congregation at the Zion Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Freeport, and it marked the first time I spoke from the pulpit of the church I would go on to lead.

King’s impact grew as I learned about the deep injustices and inequalities we continue to face in our community.

Because although his dream is alive today, we are still fighting to make it a reality. We still face voter suppression and intimidation, contributing to low voter turnout, including in New York State. Black children still don’t have equal access to education. In our state, only 14 percent of black students achieve college-ready SAT scores. We still lack economic opportunity: In 2017, the median hourly wage for African Americans in our country was just 74.6 percent of the median wage for white workers. We still face redlining. We still face police brutality and a system of laws that treats people of certain races and classes differently from others. And the list goes on and on and on.

The take-away from these facts is that inequality won’t vanish on its own, and that we must continue to stand up for what is right. That’s why on the 50th anniversary of King’s 1968 Mountaintop speech this year, many of us in the faith community are using it as an opportunity to help a new generation refresh and revive the values he laid before us.

Around the country, the Church of God in Christ has joined with AFSCME in the I AM 2018 campaign to carry forward King’s fight for racial and economic justice. Inspired by the unforgettable “I AM A MAN” slogan of the original sanitation workers’ strike, we are expanding on the work in our congregations and making sure this historic moment is properly honored — not just through words but also through action and service.

In February, more than 70 cities honored the memory of two sanitation workers who were crushed to death on the job, sparking the strike that drew King to Memphis. At my church, we have been building on the momentum of our community service and youth development programs and setting our sights on even bigger change. And this month, we will gather at the site of King’s Mountaintop speech and launch a voter education and civic engagement program to mobilize turnout for the 2018 midterm elections. We need a new generation, with fresh energy and fresh ideas to help carry forward his dream and make it a reality.

Thriving communities are a product of the people who help build them — the faith leaders, the community organizers, and the men and women who give their time to others to make their world a better place. Even though we have seen progress in recent decades, there is much more left to do to both defend the gains we have made and continue further down the path toward true equality for all.

Fifty years ago, King galvanized our country to action. Let us use this year’s anniversary to have these important discussions and to continue down the path to the promised land he spoke of all those years ago.

Frank A. White is bishop of Zion Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Freeport.

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