Martin Luther King’s wisdom, words and compassion are needed now more than ever

As we pause to reflect on the life and assassination of one of the greatest and most courageous leaders in history – 50 years ago on April 4, 1968 – I recall how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became a hero to me, when I was a poor and often homeless white boy all those years ago.

Black history began for me when I was an 8-year-old boy living in abject poverty. That’s when I first became aware of a young black man attempting to change the nation and the world for the better.

As I stood in our tiny public housing apartment kitchen, my mother was fixated by the scene playing out on the screen of our 13-inch black and white television resting on a counter that served as a regular highway for the cockroaches that infested our home.        

My mother was watching a news program in which a white man was talking about a black man who had become the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The TV news next showed a clip of the young black man speaking before tens of thousands of people. Something about his manner, his empathy and the kindness in his eyes instantly captivated me.

Once he began his civil rights work, King woke up every day knowing there were those determined to kill him. And yet, he never wavered from the fight. He never hid. He never gave up.

While both of my parents were destructively dysfunctional alcoholics, they were also both highly intelligent and educated. When sober, they would occasionally try to feed my intellectual curiosity.

So after much pestering from me to learn more about the man on the TV, my mother did manage to find me a few magazines and newspapers of the time featuring Dr. King.

The first words of his that I read as that little boy were his “I Have a Dream” speech.

As a child who had already been evicted from multiple homes – and would be evicted from 34 by the time I turned 17 – King’s fight against discrimination and for the oppressed deeply touched me.

King’s wisdom taught me then – and guides me now as a conservative Christian – that we are “all God’s children,” born with the exact same rights. No matter our gender, no matter our color, no matter our faith, and no matter our sexual orientation, we are all born with the exact same rights that must be recognized and protected.

What I came to realize is that right up until the moment he was assassinated, Martin Luther King was one of the most valiant leaders ever to walk the Earth. Ever.

Once he began his civil rights work, King woke up every day knowing there were those determined to kill him. And yet, he never wavered from the fight. He never hid. He never gave up. He walked the walk and led by example.

As someone who was later fortunate enough to work in the White House for two presidents, on a few presidential campaigns, and around politics for over 20 years, I fully understand that our nation has never been more divided nor angrier than it is now. Emotions are raw, and the rhetoric from both sides is superheated.

Five decades after the passing of King, his wisdom, his words, and his compassion are needed now more than ever. As we pause to reflect on this great man’s life, his gifts and what could and should have been, I am convinced that his stateliness and contributions to our nation and the world have been vastly underestimated.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is my hero.

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the memoir "The Forty Days: A Vision of Christ's Lost Weeks." (Simon & Schuster, 2016).