By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been gone longer than he lived, yet the inspiration he left from that iconic life continues to resonate 45 years after his assassination.
The Rev. James Hailey, whose Bethel AME Church on Oak Street hosted today's annual celebration of King's life, arguably identifies with the King message more than any other in Quincy.
Hailey is a native of Memphis, Tenn., the site of King's assassination, and was there when the civil rights leader was slain.
"Dr. King was there to try and help the sanitation workers, whose wages were extremely low," Hailey said. "My grandfather was one of those sanitation workers. I was 12 years old when Dr. King was killed."
Hailey, like most, believes King's dream of equality for all men continues to inch closer to reality — day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year.
"This year is also the 50th anniversary of his ‘I Have a Dream' speech, and that dream continues to grow, and to live, because Dr. King and others went against the grain of society to help everyone," Hailey said. "We are our brother's keeper, and if we are to make America the best (nation), we must treat everyone with integrity and dignity, just the way Christ did. King was a Baptist preacher who said, ‘All I want to do is the will of God.' We have to continue to look beyond each other's faults ... and show love. The greatest gift of all is love."
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always celebrated on the third Monday of January, even though he was born on Jan. 15. If alive today, King would be 84.
Maurice Crider, who helped start the Quincy chapter of the NAACP in the 1970s, also remembers the time of King's death.
"The country was very divided back then," Crider said. "Today, there is an entirely different atmosphere. We still have a long way to go, but I never thought I would live to see the day a black man was president of the United States. And I know a lot of other blacks felt the same way."
Fittingly, today was the inauguration of President Barack Obama, who is beginning his second term, a fact not lost on those who attended the service at Bethel AME, including Annice Mallory. She is the current president of the Quincy chapter of the NAACP and one of the organizers of the King celebration.
"It is humbling to know people can change," Mallory said. "Our nation has come a long way from slavery ... to equality. We need to continue moving forward."
At age 34, King stirred the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech.
At 35, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
At 39, he was assassinated, but he left a legacy of hope and inspiration that did not pass away with him on that April day in 1968.
In a speech delivered in Memphis one day before his assassination, King said, "Let us keep the issues where they are. That's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people."
City Engineer Jeff Steinkamp also remembers the tumultuous times of the late 1960s.
"I remember I was a student council convention in Peoria the weekend (after) Dr. King was assassinated," he said. "It was a scary time, and there were things going on I hope we never see again."
Steinkamp was honored to be a part of the celebration of King's life.
"Dr. King taught us the most important thing is our character, not the color of our skin," Steinkamp said. "I have seen attitudes change for the better over the years. I can see it in my own children."
This sentence spoken by King 50 years ago — "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" — has been quoted countless times as expressing one of America's bedrock values, its language almost sounding like a constitutional amendment on equality.
Yet, today, 50 years after King shared this vision during his most famous speech, there is considerable disagreement over what it means.
The quote is used to support opposing views on politics, affirmative action and programs intended to help the disadvantaged. Just as the words of the nation's founders are parsed for modern meanings on guns and abortion, so are King's words used in debates over the proper place of race in America.
Historian Taylor Branch believes that today King would ask people of all backgrounds — not just whites — to deepen their patriotism by reaching across barriers and learning about different people.
"To remember that we all have to stretch ourselves to build the ties that bind a democracy, which really is the source of our strength," Branch says.
Bernice King says her father is asking us "to get to a place — we're obviously not there — but to get to a place where the first thing that we utilize as a measurement is not someone's external designation, but it really is trying to look beyond that into the substance of a person in making certain decisions, to rid ourselves of those kinds of prejudices and biases that we often bring to decisions that we make."
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. The holiday was first observed in 1986, and in 1992, President George H.W. Bush said the celebration would be observed on the third Monday of January each year, near the time of King's birthday.
By 2000, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 states.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.