Even after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is undeniably one of the most notable leaders for civil and human rights. King would have been 93-years-old had he not been assassinated. His advocacy for racial equality will continue to empower generations of African Americans to come.
Unfortunately, Dr. King died on April 4, 1968, a month after leading protesters in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. He was killed by a rifle while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
While King’s assassination shook the foundation of America to its core. But his children: Martin Luther King III; Yolanda King; Bernice King; Dexter King; and widow Coretta Scott King have pushed forward to make sure that his legacy will never be forgotten.
Months after the late Civil Rights leader’s murder, his widow announced the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (The King Center). A beacon of hope and progress, the center is a nonprofit remembering King’s work of advocating for equal rights.
In 1970, King’s remains were removed from Southview Cemetery to The King Center’s campus. After the death of his wife in 2006, King’s crypt was rebuilt to include her remains as well.
Before the passing of Coretta Scott King, The King Center organized a coalition to create a national holiday on King’s birthday.
In 1971, Congress received over six million signatures in support of the holiday, but no legislative action was taken. From 1973 to 1979, states including Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey enacted statewide King holidays.
On January 14, 1979, former President Jimmy Carter announced support of the bill. It had been 12 years since Congressman Conyers introduced it. Andrew Glass, reporter for Politico reported Carter’s support for the bill was a turning point.
Coretta Scott King testified in front of Congress and organized a public lobby in support. However, the bill was defeated in the United States House of Representatives by five votes.
After a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial honoring the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Congress passed legislation in 1983. Congresswoman Katie B. Hall (D-Ind.), CBC member and member of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee reintroduced the King Holiday legislation.
During October 1983, the King Holiday Bill passed the Senate, 78-22. President Ronald Regan signed the bill into law in November 1983 establishing the third Monday in January as a federal holiday honoring Dr. King.
On January 20, 1986, the first national celebration of King took place.
During the early stages of The King Center, the Library Documentation Project began to collect records and recollections of activists during the Civil Rights Movement with the help of Vincent Harding.
Some of those records came from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Today, The King Center’s library and archives are filled with over one million items. These archives showcase documents, letters, recordings, photographs, objects, and much more in memory of King’s life, leadership, and role in the movement along with exhibit spaces devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and the members of his family.
In 1989, Dexter King became president of The King Center but resigned after just four months. According to the LA Times, he is quoted as stating: “They passed me a match and not a torch.” His mother took his place, and in 1994, Mrs. King stepped down as president—allowing Dexter King to succeed her.
The same year, The King Center feuded with the National Park Service which planned to open a federally funded nonprofit visitors center on part of the center’s site. The King family wanted a multimedia museum on the site, however. The facility was never built.
Two years later, the King Federal Holiday Commission was forced to close after a dispute with Dexter King. He viewed the commission as a competitor with The King Center for funds. Mrs. King ordered the federal commission to stop using the image of the late Civil Rights leader.
In 1997, Time Warner, Inc. signed a multimillion-dollar deal with the King family to create a collection of King’s sermons, speeches, and writing for sale to the masses.
A year later, the King family negotiated with the National Park service to donate and sell a portion of The King Center which included King’s birth home on Auburn Avenue and his tomb.
The King Center continues to be one of Atlanta’s top tourist attractions, influencing the Atlanta community by bringing nearly one million people to visit the physical site annually.
Plans to help the King Center expand include a renovation of the center’s campus. There will also be a digitization of archives, a conference series to bring Dr. King’s legacy to a modern audience, and the development of new programs and partnerships.
Almost 50 years after its founding, The King Center continues to push forward with educating millions of people on King’s hopes and deeds with Dr. Bernice A. King as its CEO.
In the words of the late Coretta Scott King: “The King Center is no dead monument, but a living memorial filled with all the vitality that was his, a center of human endeavor, committed to the causes for which he lived and died.”
(This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.)