King's main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States. Just days after King's assassination, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VIII of the Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability). This legislation is seen as a fitting tribute to King's struggle in his final years to combat residential discrimination in the U.S.
King continues to be frequently referenced as a human rights icon. His name and legacy have often been invoked since his death as people have debated his likely position on various modern political issues.
On the international scene, King's legacy included influences on the Black Consciousness Movement and Civil Rights Movement in South Africa. King's work was cited by and served as an inspiration for South African leader Albert Lutuli, another black Nobel Peace prize winner who fought for racial justice in his country. The day following King's assassination, school teacher Jane Elliott conducted her first "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise with her class of elementary school students in Riceville, Iowa. Her purpose was to help them understand King's death as it related to racism, something they little understood from having lived in a predominately white community.
King's wife, Coretta Scott King, followed her husband's footsteps and was active in matters of social justice and civil rights until her death in 2006. The same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, she established the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to preserving his legacy and the work of championing nonviolent conflict resolution and tolerance worldwide. Their son, Dexter King, currently serves as the center's chairman. Daughter Yolanda King, who died in 2007, was a motivational speaker, author and founder of Higher Ground Productions, an organization specializing in diversity training.
There are opposing views, even within the King family, of the slain civil rights leader's religious and political views about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. King's widow Coretta said publicly that she believed her husband would have supported gay rights. However, his daughter Bernice believed he would have been opposed to gay marriage. The King Center includes discrimination, and lists homophobia as one of its examples, in its list of "The Triple Evils" that should be opposed.
In 1980, the Department of Interior designated King's boyhood home in Atlanta and several nearby buildings the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. In 1996, United States Congress authorized the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to establish a foundation to manage fund raising and design of a national Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, established by and for African Americans. King was the first African American honored with his own memorial in the National Mall area and the first non-President to be commemorated in such a way. The King Memorial will be administered by the National Park Service.
King's life and assassination inspired many artistic works. A 1976 Broadway production, I Have a Dream, was directed by Robert Greenwald and starred Billy Dee Williams as King. In spring of 2006, a stage play Passages of Martin Luther King about King was produced in Beijing, China with King portrayed by Chinese actor, Cao Li. The play was written by Stanford University professor, Clayborne Carson.
King spoke earlier about what people should remember him for if they are around for his funeral. He said rather than his awards and where he went to school, people should talk about how he fought peacefully for justice:I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
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“What is popularly called fame is nothing but an empty name and a legacy from paganism.”
—Desiderius Erasmus (c. 14661536)