Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd...

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a moment to remember an extraordinary life, and the monumental struggles of black Americans.

That life and those struggles are hardly ancient history. The civil rights movement that MLK helped lead occurred within current lifetimes. Iconic Georgia Rep. John Lewis was a keynote speaker at age 23 at the March on Washington. His unshakable bravery and organizational powers helped drive the Freedom Rides and the march from Selma to Montgomery, highlighting segregation and voter disenfranchisement.

At 79, “the conscience of Congress” is a role model for millions in his lifelong crusade for human rights and equality.

But Lewis’ battles now include one with pancreatic cancer. As ever, he is approaching that fight valiantly.

Last year saw the deaths of other civil rights warriors. Juanita Abernathy was a Montgomery bus boycott organizer and equal rights campaigner along with her husband, Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, had been a forceful voting rights advocate, and as a youth he marched to integrate a South Baltimore pool. It was the beginning of a lifetime of campaigns.

Former Michigan Rep. John Conyers’ political life took a turn when he resigned in 2017, accused of unwelcome sexual advances, which his representatives denied. But his career was interwoven with decades of advancement for black Americans, and it was he who introduced legislation for an MLK holiday days after King’s assassination in 1968.

As the humanity and imperfections and great accomplishments of these individuals fade with their passing, they become part of a very critical chapter in the nation’s history. Just as King himself may today seem more like a spectral presence or statuesque prophet than a brilliant tactician, preacher and organizer who seized the moment.

Every MLK Day that transition deepens. We will come to the point when only the history books will have firsthand knowledge of the 1960s and those tumultuous days of protest and slow progress.

But the message of those times and that movement is no less clear, and no less urgent, today.

— The editorial board