April 4, 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Anyone who had reached the age of consciousness by that date remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the shattering and heartbreaking news that Dr. King had been gunned down in Memphis.
I was a junior in college and the news swept across campus like wildfire. Most people could hardly believe it had happened. Others, having been exposed more directly to the implacable evil and hatred Dr. King faced, were more saddened than surprised. After all, people who would blow up little girls in a Birmingham church would have little compunction about assassinating the most successful and inspirational symbol of non-violent opposition to their rabid racist ideologies.
One of my memories of that painful and tragic day was being comforted and deeply moved by the brave words of Senator Robert Kennedy (then campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president). Little could I have imagined that he, himself, would be assassinated two months later in that horribly violent and convulsive year—1968.
Try as I might, I cannot imagine how we, as a nation, could have navigated through the dangerous shoals of deeply ingrained racism to racial equality under the law for African Americans without much greater bloodshed, without Dr. King's courageous and inspirational leadership. All Americans should be extremely grateful that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked among us during the middle third of the 20th century.
Looking back on the truly significant progress Dr. King and those inspired by his dream, black and white, made between the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and Dr. King's death in 1968, I must confess that I am deeply saddened we have not made more progress toward racial reconciliation and justice than we have in the subsequent 40 years.
Perhaps the law has done most of the heavy lifting it can do. People of faith should understand better than most that the law can change habits, but faith can change hearts.
People of faith need to resolve to take a greater leadership role to foster venues and ministry opportunities that can lead us the rest of the way to the realization of Dr. King's elusive, but transformative, vision of a country in which people truly are "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
I can think of no more fitting way to commemorate Dr. King's life and ministry than to rededicate ourselves to racial reconciliation in every segment and sector in our society.
This column originally posted at Casting Stones?, a blog at Beliefnet.com.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.