He Had a Dream
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., his youngest child discusses his life and legacy.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, he was the leading voice of the civil rights movement—the long struggle to gain equal rights for African-Americans. He had come to Memphis to support the city’s black sanitation workers. They had been on strike for nearly two months while demanding better pay and safer working conditions. King planned to lead a protest march two days later. Tragically, he wouldn’t get to lead the march. The next evening, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, King was shot and killed. People around the world mourned the loss of King—none more than his family. Bernice King, the youngest of his four children, was 5 years old at the time. Fifty years later, she remembers her father’s courage and his message of working to bring about change through nonviolent protest. “He served humanity and he sacrificed his life for the betterment of the world,” she says.
An “Ordinary” Kid
Though Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as a heroic figure, Bernice King says we shouldn’t think of him as a “superhero.” “He was really an ordinary person who was able to do extraordinary things,” she says. Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, King was a lot like other kids. He pulled pranks with his siblings, didn’t like to do the dishes, and loved to play baseball. King grew up in an unjust society. In Georgia and other Southern states, segregation—the forced separation of people based on race—was the law. African-Americans could not use the same bathrooms, eat at the same restaurants, or attend the same schools as white people. In addition, many states had other racist laws that limited black people’s basic rights, including voting in elections.
Fighting for Equality
King emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement in December 1955. At the time, he was the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. The city was one of many in the South that didn’t allow black people to sit in the same section as white people on public buses. Civil rights leaders approached King to help organize a boycott of the city’s buses. The boycott lasted more than a year while the issue was argued in court. It finally ended after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation on public buses. The Montgomery bus boycott thrust King into the national spotlight. It also marked the first of many times that he would use nonviolent tactics, like peaceful marches, to protest unjust laws. King’s tireless efforts helped bring about many positive changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, outlawed segregation in public places. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to deny anyone the right to vote based on race. Even after these victories, King continued to work to gain equal rights for African-Americans and other groups that faced discrimination.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
Sadly, many Americans didn’t share King’s dream of equality. He was viewed as a threat by many white Americans who didn’t think black people deserved the same rights that they had. King and his family received numerous death threats, and their house was bombed. Bernice King says what made her father such a special leader was that he wasn’t afraid to die for what he believed in. “I think [he] knew that he was not going to live a long life—that at any given moment he was going to be taken from us,” she says. The night before he was assassinated, King gave one of his most famous speeches. He said he envisioned a day when America would truly be a land of equality. But he knew that he might not live to see it. “I’ve seen the Promised Land,” King told a huge audience in Memphis. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” Though his voice was silenced the next day, King’s message lived on. Other civil rights leaders stepped in to keep the movement going. Among them was King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Later in 1968, she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. Today, Bernice King is the chief executive officer of the center. Each January, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The holiday has become a national day of service, when millions of volunteers help others in their communities, in King’s honor. “I think his greatest legacy is teaching us a way to really, frankly, get along in the world,” says Bernice King.