Martin Luther King Jr. (182335)

April 4, 1968, my mother’s screams ripped through our living room as Walter Cronkite announced Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in Memphis. I was 6 years old, and although at the time I had only a vague understanding of who King was, his assassination would serve as the impetus for me coming to know and understand his life deeply.

That same year, I presented a book report on him to the congregation at the Zion Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Freeport, N.Y., and it marked the first time I spoke from the pulpit of the church I would go on to lead.

King’s impact on me grew as I learned about the deep injustices and inequalities we continue to face in our community.

Although his dream is alive today, we are still fighting to make it a reality. We still face voter suppression and intimidation, contributing to New York’s voter turnout rate ranking 48th in the country. Black children still don’t have equal access to education. In our state, only 14 percent of Black students achieve college-ready SAT scores. We still lack economic opportunity—in 2016 the top 1 percent of earners made 45 times more than the bottom 99 percent. We still face redlining. We still face police brutality and a system of laws that treats people of certain races and classes differently from others. And the list goes on and on and on.

The lesson these facts teach us is that inequality won’t vanish on its own. We must continue to stand up for what is right. That’s why as we approach the 50th anniversary of King’s 1968 “Mountaintop” speech this year, many of us in the faith community are using it as an opportunity to help a new generation refresh and revive the values he laid before us.

Around the country, the millions-strong Church of God in Christ has joined with AFSCME in the I Am 2018 campaign. Inspired by the unforgettable “I Am a Man” slogan of the original sanitation workers’ strike, we are expanding on the work in our congregations and making sure this historic moment is properly honored—not just through words, but through action and service.

In February, more than 70 cities joined forces to honor the memory of two sanitation strikers who were crushed to death on the job, sparking the strike that drew King to Memphis. At my church, we have been building on the momentum of our community service and youth development programs and setting our sights on even bigger change. And in April, we will gather at the site of King’s “Mountaintop” speech and launch a voter education and civic engagement program to take on issues of racial and economic injustice and mobilize turnout for the 2018 elections. We need a new generation, with fresh energy and fresh ideas to help carry forward his dream and make it a reality.

Thriving communities are a product of the people who help build them—the faith leaders, the community organizers and the men and women who give their time to others to make their world a better place. Even though we have seen progress in recent decades, there is so much more left to do to both defend the gains we have made and continue further down the path toward true equality for all. Fifty years ago, King galvanized our country to action. Let us use this year’s anniversary to have these important discussions and to continue down the path to the promised land he spoke of all those years ago.