Coffin 1-13-2013

My Word: We need to remember King’s legacy

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, January 13, 2013)

By James Coffin

Forty-five years ago this spring, the most high-profile figure of the U.S. civil-rights movement was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.

At the time of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s death, about 60 percent of our current U.S. population hadn’t yet been born. Millions more were too young to have any personal recollection of the man or his mission. So keeping his legacy alive requires effort.

We would do well to remember that …

For the first 300 years of sustained European activity in North America, blacks were slaves. That ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years ago this month.

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave citizenship to all freed slaves, and the 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, gave voting rights to black males. (All women were given the right to vote in 1920.) Tragically, the discriminatory legal doctrine of “separate but equal” soon emerged, holding sway for decades.

In its 1954 watershed decision, Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally acknowledged that separate is, by definition, not equal. That decision opened the floodgates of opportunity for civil-rights advancement. Fortuitously, that same year, King made his public debut by becoming pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

The next 14 years witnessed the convergence of King’s talent and tenacity, the mood and momentum of the times, and the determination and dreams of thousands of activists, many of whom had been working quietly but resolutely for decades. The result was an unprecedented and unparalleled period of civil-rights progress.

But King didn’t advocate just for his own race. He sought justice for all. He fought against poverty wherever it existed. He decried war. For his efforts, he became, at age 35, the youngest recipient (to that point) of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He lost his life at age 39.

As a society, we face the challenge of appropriately celebrating the great advances that have been made without losing sight of what remains to be done. To their credit, an array of organizations in Central Florida use the MLK holiday each year, Jan. 21, as an opportunity to reflect on and recommit to MLK’s vision for a more equitable world for all people.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. For a schedule of events today through Jan. 26, go to