On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, we look back at the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On November 17, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon called "Love Your Enemies" at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. "Love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says, 'Love your enemies.' Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption," King preached.
His message was more than a spirited sermon. It was a belief that defined his leadership and became the crux of the civil rights movement.
Rev. Jesse Douglas, a civil rights leader, and King's friend said, "This person who was from the American Nazi Party called his [MLK's] name. And when he turned around, he punched him in the face. The guys that were there – they were going to do him in. And Dr. King said, 'No, brethren, wait a minute, wait, wait – don't harm him. He is the victim of the indoctrination of hate.'"
At the time, a reporter asked if King would press charges against the attacker.
"No," King said. "I don't plan to."
Only Love Can Overpower Hate
"He felt that hate cannot overpower hate. That only love can. If you're going to fight hate with hate, you're fighting a losing battle," Douglas said.
Dr. King's example inspired peaceful protests across the country. It also exposed decades of social injustice, bringing blacks and whites together for a common cause.
"When America began to see racism, America, good-hearted people, began to say 'no, I don't think so. This is not right. This is not good,'" said Alveda King, Martin Luther King's niece.
"I just couldn't understand why this was happening to the African American community," said Peggy Wallace Kennedy.
Peggy had a unique view of racial prejudice. Her father was George Wallace – the man who won his bid for governor of Alabama on one promise: "I say, 'Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.'"
She was 12 when her father, flanked by state troopers, blocked Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama. It was in direct defiance of President John F. Kennedy's executive order to integrate schools and colleges.
"I loved my daddy more than anything in the world," Peggy said. "I did not want him to stand in the schoolhouse door, but he did. I just thought it was wrong. I wanted to go up to these people and say, 'You deserve to be here. You should be here.' But I couldn't."
The standoff ended without incident when President Kennedy called in the National Guard. but the next time Governor Wallace tried to intervene, it didn't end so peacefully.
On March 7, 1965, 600 men and women started out on foot from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest voter discrimination. On the far side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, they were met and assaulted by state and local police.
The clash, known as Bloody Sunday, left one dead and dozens wounded. Wallace, who had ordered law enforcement to Selma, had to answer for the violence.
"Now, I'm against violence, and I'm just as sorry that anybody got hurt," Wallace said after the clash. "My orders have always been to use a minimum amount of force."
"I would like to think that my father said, 'Do not attack the marchers.' That's what I would love to think," Peggy said.
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with other civil rights leaders and 25,000 protestors, made the 47-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery. The following August, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into Law.
MLK Assassinated in Memphis
But hatred was still alive.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot to death on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
"I can't stand to talk about it. That's how hurt I was," Rev. Jesse Douglas told us.
"I remember saying to my dad, 'I just hate white people; they killed Uncle ML,'" Alveda King said. "He said, 'wait a minute, wait a minute. White people didn't kill your uncle.' He said, 'white people prayed with us, white people marched with us. White people go to jail with us, white people die with us. The devil killed your uncle.' And I remember him saying that we have to love, we have to forgive, we have to love, we have to forgive."
"He didn't hate anyone," Douglas added. "He saw this as a part of God's plan because he knew his life might be snuffed out at any time. And he was ready for that. We were determined to give ourselves to helping to fulfill the dream."
The Struggle With Anger and Unforgiveness
Not everyone would embrace that dream.
Dr. King's daughter, Bernice, who was only five years old when he was murdered, found herself struggling with anger as she entered her teen years.
"I remember distinctly in my heart feeling very angry. I was angry at white people because I felt they were responsible," Bernice King said. "I was angry at black people because I felt like we hadn't done enough to continue the work. I was angry at God because I felt He could have stopped it. My anger did turn to rage and bitterness and hate. I literally ended up hating all white people especially white men."
But as Bernice dealt with her own pain, Dr. King's message of love and forgiveness would prevail – even in the hearts of those who were once his enemies.
While campaigning for the presidency in May 1972, George Wallace was shot four times at close range by a volunteer. The wounds left him permanently bound to a wheelchair. But that wasn't the only change Peggy saw in her father in the years that followed.
"He realized, with his suffering and pain, how much suffering and pain he must have caused the African American community. He'd talk about segregation, and he'd talk about how wrong he was. He just wanted forgiveness," Peggy said.
"One Sunday, he asked his bodyguards, he said, 'I want you to take me to Dexter Avenue Church' They took him down there unannounced. And they rolled his wheelchair down that middle aisle, and he sat there and asked that congregation to forgive him. And they did. It showed me what love and forgiveness are about. It filled my heart up. This was a very healing moment for him," she said.
Another Heart Softens and Changes
Meanwhile, Bernice's heart was also changing. Ever since her father was killed, her mother, Coretta Scott King, had refused to give in to hatred.
"The Bible says, 'Do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you'" Bernice recalled. "I saw her bless those that cursed her. Do good to those that hate her. And when she would say, 'I don't hold grudges,' I watched when people did very painful things to her that she just didn't hold it. She still loved them. It was just a powerful embodiment of Christ's spirit in our home."
However, it wasn't until an interview on the James Robison Show in 2000 that Bernice's healing finally began.
"In the middle of it, [Robison] said, 'Can I give you a hug?' Now internally I'm like 'no!'. But my mother taught me better. So, I said 'sure' and he gave me a hug and – it was one of the most genuine hugs I've ever received. And that sounds, probably for most people, so simple and trite but it was very powerful because it began my healing process," Bernice said.
MLK's Dream Fulfilled
Then, in 2013, part of her father's dream was fulfilled. Bernice King and Peggy Wallace Kennedy stood side-by-side as hundreds of thousands gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.
"Being able to join as sister-to-sister with Peggy Wallace years later was like a moment of redemption," said Bernice.
"I hugged her and I said, 'I love you, Bernice.' And she said, 'I love you, Peggy,'" Peggy remembered. "And I thought at that moment about that line that Dr. King spoke about 'One day down in Alabama, I hope that little white girls and little black girls can hold hands like sisters down in Alabama.' And I thought Dr. King and my father must be up there going 'How would we know that it would be our daughters that held hands as sisters down in Alabama?'"
Much has been accomplished through the work and sacrifices of so many people. While there is more to be done, the solution is always the same.
"Only love can develop sensitivity in another person's mind and heart," Jesse Douglas declared.
"It will never be legislating morality to such a point that people will do what is right unless you change the heart of the human being." Alveda King added. "The human heart, once it confronts genuine love, forgiveness, repentance, it can change. And when that heart is genuinely surrendered to God, then we can learn and find what my uncle called: 'the strength to love.'"
"It's who we are and how we live and lead our lives that causes true transformation," Bernice concluded. "Dr. King changed people not just by his words. He didn't preach stuff that he didn't live, he lived it. We have to learn to hear the truth of God's message and live it and embody it because that's the light that the world desperately needs right now. It needs the spirit of Christ. People know the name of Jesus. They don't know His spirit. And we must become His spirit."