For a whole generation of us, Martin Luther King Jr. has always been dead. He was already an icon and a martyr before I was old enough to notice there were people of different skin tones. He was, for most of my youth, a great speech and a mighty symbol. He wasnâ€™t a real man in the same way Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are not real men. They are vehicles for our national narratives.
Except, of course, King was a real man and his death preceded my birth by barely six years. My generation grew up in his shadow. The idea that we are all truly equal was not radical, not even in my Texas community. It was taken as truth and to say otherwise was wrong, not just factually but morally.
I remember a child in my class who one day refused to play with anyone who wasnâ€™t white because his dad told him to only play with â€œrealâ€ Americans. Many kids in my class were Asian, some were Black. Everyone ostracized the racist kid because none of us wanted to turn on our friends. This was maybe 1982-83. Fifteen years after Kingâ€™s death, there were already little boys in Texas turning away from hate and segregation. That was and still is part of Kingâ€™s legacy.
Now, 40 years after Kingâ€™s death, we live in a more diverse and unified society than ever before. There are still many, many divisions and the ghosts of our racist past still haunt us. But we are a better people now than we were then, thanks to Kingâ€™s message and thanks to the many who listened and believed in what he had to say.
I donâ€™t know what is was like to be alive when King was spreading his message. But I know what it was like to grow up in his aftermath. Iâ€™d like to think my generation has greatly benefited from his life and his ultimate sacrifice.