After the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I learned that pursuing one's convictions could come with consequences — potentially dire consequences. I was in my teens when the civil rights leader was killed. My friends and I were rocked to our core and overcome by fear, yet again. Just four and a half years before, President John F. Kennedy, a supporter of civil rights, was assassinated. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. Like the president's, King's death had an impact on how we associate with one another and became a beacon for the concept of social change. He was another '60s figure we Americans saw eliminated because of a stance on human justice.
See also: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To me, King's legacy transcends that of a tribute or memorial. His likeness may be in stone but his message lives in our social DNA. When I look back, I see the force of his actions — his passion, his courage in the face of adversity, and his commitment to transforming the lives of many. That instilled in me how powerful one person could be when his beliefs — and how he acted on those beliefs — were about something bigger than himself.
Dr. King never wavered in his conviction that through peaceful resistance and protests, equal rights for all Americans could be achieved. This part of the struggle meant pressing forward — continuously — despite living in a system that wasn't ready to embrace his words and actions. There was no contradiction in his fight through words and peaceful protests.
We still can learn from Dr. King's speeches, which highlighted his ideas on social reform. Thinking of King's unique struggle in the face of violent counter-protest has allowed me to put action to my own commitment to improve society. I learned that the reality of social struggle requires strength, conviction and selflessness. When challenges arise in my life, Dr. King's beliefs help me stand firm on my own.
In my work, I am fortunate to be able to further my commitment to equity and social justice — in short, the pursuit of equality among all Americans. My work focuses on the greater good, using the transformative power of advocacy to improve life for all in diverse communities around the country. This is the legacy of MLK. It resonates today as much as, if not more than, it did when he spoke out almost 50 years ago.
Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez is AARP’s executive vice president for Multicultural Markets and Engagement.