Having been born 13 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I know I'll never fully understand the magnitude of his impact on our country.
As a writer, I've always admired King's use of words and his ability to inspire. I read King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in college, where I was a political science major. The letter showed me the extent of King's intellectual prowess, as I had never seen it before.
But, even more admirable was the cause to which he dedicated his remarkable skills. King worked selflessly to promote equality at a time when it was rare in America.
He stood up against hostility I can't imagine in the bigoted South.
Growing up in North Carolina, the home of legendary Sen. Jesse Helms, I witnessed the prejudice that still exists in some Southerners.
My grandmother, who I love and respect, used to have an autographed picture of Gov. George Wallace, Alabama's champion of segregation, hanging in her living room.
I can't conceive what it was like to live in the South in King's day, to fight the battles he fought, to defy an entire culture.
One of my professors in college, Chuck Stone, was editor of two prominent black newspapers during the civil rights movements. Stone said he was close friends with King, but hesitated when King asked him to move to Atlanta to head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"I told him I didn't want to live in the South," Stone recalls. "(King) said, ?Chuck, the South is changing,' so I said ?Then why are you still marching?"
King writes in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" about the need for him to be in the South because "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Stone said one of King's traits that he admired most was his belief in equality and love for all people.
"Martin believed in an ecumenical society," he said.
When King was assassinated, Stone said he was "shattered."
"I had to go on the Today show to talk about it the next day, and I just couldn't stop crying," he said.
And though King was murdered more than 35 years ago, his legacy lives on in the South and elsewhere. Teachers across America will use today to teach their students, white and black, about this great man.
King wrote in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail:"
"One day the South will recognize its real heroes?One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
The South might not yet appreciate the hardships that King and others endured and the invaluable changes they brought about, but I think we're on our way.
Billy Corriher covers government and politics for the News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 281 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.