Editor’s note: The following essay was the winner of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest.

Each year, students are taught about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the way we view him changes. In the first grade, I thought that “MLK” was an abbreviation for “milk.” Then, in the third grade, he was the man who helped free slaves without fighting, so he must have had mind control powers, right? Later, in the sixth grade, when things made more sense, Martin Luther King was one of the people who allowed me to sit in a class with a buzz of different races around me, speaking and mingling as if there was truly no difference between us. Finally, here and now, he was not just a man who helped overcome racism. What he did in his life meant so much more. MLK successfully helped African-Americans get equal rights and protest peacefully. He is an inspiration to all to use not fists but words. And because of his influence, we can help America keep growing.

Dr. King helped African-Americans gain equal rights. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. The 14th Amendment gave African-Americans citizenship, and the 15th gave them the right to vote. Could African-Americans and those of other races who were being treated unfairly at the time have exercised their rights without the efforts of Dr. King? His house was bombed and he was on the top of the hate lists of many white people. He was arrested over 25 times, enduring it all for what he believed to be right. Everyone knows from his “I Have a Dream” speech that he wished for those of color to be equal to whites under the law. Many people in power did not agree with Dr. King’s ideas, which made it dangerous for him to protest and say what he thought was right. Because he didn’t do the easy thing and just let things take their course, now people of color can use the rights given to them by the American Constitution.

Dr. King was known for his famous peaceful protests. He was inspired by Gandhi to fight, not with his fists, but with powerful words. Even when those around Dr. King were fighting, he remained strong in his beliefs. The accomplishments that Dr. King had with his peaceful protests were plentiful. There was the famous and successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., which started with the bravery of Rosa Parks in 1955. Martin Luther King spread his teachings to many through his speeches and his books. In 1964 he was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the riots were going on all around him, Dr. King remained calm. African-Americans in the cities were trying to use violence to solve their problems, but Dr. King kept saying that violence was wrong and unproductive, and he was right.

One of the events that sparked the civil rights movement is the lynching of Emmet Till. After whistling at a white woman, her husband and his companion found him and tortured him. They gouged out one of his eyes, beat him and shot him in the head. In their murder trial a white jury found the defendants not guilty. With the protection from prosecution by double jeopardy, they admitted later to murdering the 14-year-old Till. At his funeral, his mother left his casket open to allow people to see the abuse that those whose skin was darker than that of a white person’s endured. Many were furious; King channeled the African-American community’s rage, and continued to speak securely about what he thought was right. Dr. King remained peaceful and advocated nonviolent protest until his assassination in 1968.

Everyone should take seriously the message that Dr. King preached. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a level where racism doesn’t exist; that doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from the lessons of Dr. King’s struggle. How proud would this generation be to look back and say that we made sure that the horrible things that occurred back when Dr. King was protesting in the streets never happened under our watch? Dr. King’s influence is still upon us. We see peaceful protests around us often. We can thank people like Dr. King for setting the standard. Without them, we could have been forced to duck our heads and run every time we passed protesters on the street.

A movement like Dr. King’s is happening right now in front of us — the movement for gay rights. Dr. King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” The Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill in November giving gay couples the right to form civil unions, which are like legal marriages. Soon, we might give married gay couples the right to adopt children, something they are not allowed to do now. This is not fair, and I am sure that when Dr. King argued that everyone should be treated equally, he just didn’t mean in terms of race. There are many rights that any “normal” couple would have that gay couples do not, based simply on the fact that they have a different sexual orientation. They deserve the rights that we were all rightfully given at birth and when we became citizens of this country. Their movement is very similar to the civil rights movement, and the treatment they are being given is not what was in Dr. King’s dream. Luckily for us, his influence gives us the strength to fight for what we know is right, and to learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, the people in power now will realize what those of us in high school and even middle school know: What they are allowing to happen is not right.

Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the most influential people in our history. He took a great part in helping African-Americans gain rights that every American was supposed to be given at birth according to our Declaration of Independence. He protested peacefully, not allowing the violence, hate and destruction caused by others to affect the way he acted. It was Dr. King who gave us the pebbled pathway to creating a better future. As this generation ages and some of us come into office, we’ll know that it is time for a change. We will take the right steps to make change possible for those who come after us, so that they can follow in our footsteps to improvement. We will support each other and the words will stay with us always as a reminder that we have to count on each other to make things better: Don’t let me fall.

Alexa Lisitza is an Oak Park resident and freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School

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