01/17/2014 11:45 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

King: The Man Behind the Legacy

Last year, my husband and I took some time out to visit the historical monuments in Washington D.C. Among them was the newly built Martin Luther King Jr. memorial -- a memorial that held particular appeal for us.

Named the "Stone of Hope," the memorial consists of a statue of King, carved out of granite. On the north and south walls enclosing the statue are inscriptions King preached ardently, such as: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice," and, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

The sermon above was spot-on. It had personal application to its preacher's life.

King experienced countless moments of suffering and sacrifice as he and other black leaders rallied the masses in efforts to change the nation's course on segregation. He was imprisoned for organizing and participating in sit-ins and demonstrations in defiance of a state injunction. Labeled the "most dangerous man in America" by the FBI, he was ultimately assassinated for his hard endeavors.

Even as he organized the black community and supporters around the civil rights movement, King encountered hesitation, at times resistance, from those near and dear to him. When he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became its first president, other black leaders wondered whether he could effectively lead citizens across America. His "I have a dream" address -- considered the best 20th century address by historians -- wasn't meant to be expressed from the podium at the March on Washington. And his popularity waned in later years as he spoke out against the war, with the "Beyond Vietnam" speech being branded his life's most controversial speech.

But King wasn't one to cower. He cared too deeply about righting the injustices and inequities existent in a society that too eagerly claimed of being the largest, truest democracy in the world.

These days, a conversation about King's heroism is an easy, comfortable conversation. Americans believe segregation was morally reprehensible and unlawful. And if polled, we will affirm that we find deep meaning in King's lifelong work for justice and equality. We relish listening to his historically momentous speech and quote him constantly in the promotion of important causes.

If King were alive today, it's not unpredictable how he would receive news of assaults on peace and justice efforts and the status of civil rights in the U.S. For example, a horrifically unjust verdict was handed down last year in the killing of a young black man, Trayvon Martin. Moreover, the world was recently shocked to learn of massive surveillance of law-abiding Americans, U.S. elected officials, and even international heads.

Yet, in King's legacy and loss, we find inspiration, with the belief that if a single man can be the force behind much-needed social change, then so can you and I.

As we gratefully stand on the shoulders of King and other civil rights champions who came before us, we know that our work has become easier, not harder. There are challenges, yes. But lynchings, bombings and other terror tactics against those who speak out are also not as real today as they were in the 50s and the 60s.

King said, "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."

I couldn't agree more.