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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Dream Lives On
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Jan 20, 2014 at 09:00 AM

Cornel West was a 14-year-old high student when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 . . .

It was 1968, the year my brother Cliff was invited to the California State Capitol by Governor Ronald Reagan. We found ourselves running in an early spring track meet. Kennedy vs. Sacramento High. It was guaranteed to be a spirited contest. On the day of the meet we were both absolutely focused, promising to leave everything we had at the finish line.

And, Lord knows, we did. The euphoria of youth can be a bubble nearly impossible to burst. Even after the final event was over and the public address announcer had announced the final tallies. Even when he added that he had a very important announcement. Even as we began to register what it was he was trying to tell us.

Even as we were about to be shaken to our very core.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.



Not possible.


A rumor.

No, a fact.

It happened.

The man is dead.

Now nothing makes sense.

Why am I getting up every morning and running five miles? Why am I training night and day? What’s the point? Who cares who hits the tape first? Who cares if the honor of my school is upheld? Who cares about some silly foot race? What does it all mean anyway?

My life up to that point revolved around winning every track meet and getting an “A” in every course. Now those goals didn’t seem to matter. Hitting the tape no longer mattered. Acing the history paper no longer mattered. Not when they shot down Dr. King like a dog.

Next day Cliff and I quietly joined a protest. Saying nothing, we marched out of school. Hundreds of us simply got up and left. We didn’t have to explain. Actions spoke louder than words. Everyone understood.

I’m not sure I understood. I was reading, reading, reading. I was running, running, running. I was going to church, I was praying alongside my parents, I was mourning the loss of Dr. King, I was feeling an anger and outrage that was hard to control. But did I actually understand the way the world was moving? No, sir. I had to rely on John Keats’s “Negative Capability.” I had to remind myself, as the poet had reminded me, that the goal is to chill in that state of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without reaching after fact and reason.”

Music helped the most. Marvin Gaye spoke to me with “Ain’t That Peculiar.” Sam & Dave said, “Hold On, I’m Coming.” But, oh, Lord, James Brown shut the whole thing down with “Cold Sweat.” Far as I was concerned, that was the existential statement of the decade. It was the groove of life. It was the paradox of paradoxes and the dance of dances. It caught the fury and lit the fire, and, most of all, it kept us dancing.

People are hungry for someone with the rare quality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Someone who possesses the depth of his love, the quality of his service and his willingness to pursue unarmed truth and unconditional love. He empathized not just with those dealing with catastrophic circumstances but with the very folk who were ruling.

We must acknowledge that his mission was extraordinary because a Martin Luther King does not come around every generation. I’m sometimes accused of being anti-American, and I just say that as Plato attempted to make the world safe for Socrates, I’m attempting to make the world safe for the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.—and King was the best of America!

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading