Illinois residents have tipped their cap to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., since 1973, longer than any other state in the nation. It wasn’t until 2000 that the leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement was recognized with a federal holiday. And even then, just eight years ago, there was resistance to the idea.

After 1999 when the holiday was signed into federal law, New Hampshire and Arizona were forced to change the name of their state holidays to include Dr. King’s name. The president at the time, Ronald Reagan, somewhat grudgingly signed the legislation after Congress voted so overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that he had no choice.

Anyone with access to the Internet can pull up these little nuggets of somewhat unremarkable information on Dr. King, and surely, there is some value in this. But none of these factual tidbits gives the civil rights movement any more immediacy than say, Abraham’s Lincoln’s decision to abolish slavery. Time has a way of taking some of the luster off. It adds distance, and with that comes a disconnect.

On Monday evening, during a gathering to honor King’s legacy, the director of the Forest Park Public Library scanned the room and wagered he was the only one old enough to remember hearing the famed “I Have a Dream” speech as it was broadcast on television.

His observation makes very real the potential disconnect that looms for future generations. There are still tens of thousands of Americans alive today who can provide a first-hand accounting of the brutal, emotional and triumphant period that King helped lead, but it won’t be long before we are dependant on the archivists to hear those stories.

It’s difficult to imagine King’s message losing its relevance. So long as there are the haves and the have nots, there will be a push for equality. But as time goes by and future generations become that much more removed from the civil rights era, the sharing of stories and memories should be more urgent.

These accounts don’t have to come from those who joined Dr. King in a march or in church, either. Anyone with a memory of the turmoil and passion that rippled across the country can make that era more real for the rest of us.

 


Corrections

  • In a Jan. 2 column, “Lawsuit could signal the end for Chris Welch,” columnist Bill Dwyer incorrectly stated that Welch was re-elected to his school board seat in 2007. Welch was re-elected in 2005.
  • A Jan. 9 Hometown story, “Smoke ’em if you got ’em,” incorrectly reported that Andy Gagliardo is a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School. Gagliardo graduated from Fenwick High School.
  • In a Jan. 16 roundup of the village council meeting, “K9 cop turns in his badge,” page 5, Gaetano DiBenedetto was incorrectly identified as the former chef at La Piazza. DiBenedetto continues to cook at the restaurant. At the meeting, he received a conditional use permit from the village to open his own eatery.