Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. It's remarkable that 45 years have passed, mostly, I guess, because I'm old enough to remember when it happened.
King is venerated nowadays, but in 1968, a wide swath of this country regarded him as anything but a hero and patriot. From the moment he reluctantly set aside his plans to be a theologian and assumed the mantle of leadership, he was flayed as a troublemaker bent on destroying America.
At the time of his death, King, 39, was at a crossroads. His gospel of nonviolent resistance was starting to grate upon the ears of some younger blacks who were losing both patience and faith and were turning toward the sound and fury emanating from the black power movement.
In the box
As King widened his focus to embrace such issues as economic injustice and opposition to the war in Vietnam, it dismayed some people and angered others, particularly those who had a vested interest in preserving what President Dwight Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex."
At the time of his murder, King was lending his voice to garbage collectors in Memphis in their bid for a living wage. As one pastor recently put it, King was acceptable so long as he stayed within his "Negro Preacher Box." But when he began speaking out of turn and out of the box, he became a clear and present danger to a system that benefited a few but imposed upon everyone.
It seems to be the way of things. Nelson Mandela is one of the most revered people on the planet, but there was a time when he, too, was tagged as a terrorist.
After a pilgrimage to Mecca exposed Malcolm X to the true essence of his own religion, he met his end at the hands of fellow Muslims determined to stifle his pointed criticism of the Nation of Islam's leadership.
Truth to power
Had Mother Teresa called us out on the selfishness, consumption and greed that grip the West, she might not be one of our most-admired women today.
The irony is that by fighting on behalf of the oppressed, King also freed the oppressors. Consider the mental gymnastics required to defend our involvement in Vietnam, or the time and energy needed to maintain a system as complicated and draconian as Jim Crow. Visit the South today, and you almost wonder if what happened back then occurred on a different planet.
But we know better, don't we? Every day, we see for ourselves what happens when someone speaks truth to power. Thanks to social media, many attacks now require less effort and carry fewer consequence for their perpetrators. But they are damaging, nonetheless.
Page 2 of 2 - Not even children are immune. If a 14-year-old girl such as Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan is not safe to advocate for something as fundamental and necessary as education, the footpath to freedom is much longer than we thought.