I had the privilege of being part of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s magic when I heard him speak in 1962, while I was in college in North Carolina. There -- in a segregated city where whites used one toilet and "coloreds" another, where the largest hospital admitted blacks only to windowless basement rooms -- the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a single afternoon, welded into one thousands of people, black and white.
I looked at the sea of faces around me, eyes shining and voices lifted. I saw whites who were thinking about civil rights for the first time in their lives and I saw blacks on the brink of discovering how much they could accomplish for the future, together.
I realized at that moment that the world I had been born into was about to change forever.
In 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I wasn't living in America, but I remember the moment I heard -- where I was, what I was doing -- even today, with the same clarity I remember the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the day terrorists steered planes into the World Trade Center. On all three of those dark days, a part of me died, too.
In my whole life I have never seen another human being inspire so much good in so many people as Dr. King.
You had only to see him and hear him. He was not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal -- those were labels for others, not him.
Now, as we commemorate what would have been his 89th birthday, we need him more than ever. His magic, after all, was his ability to heal open wounds, to turn hatred to hope. It is not possible to know how much better the world might have been had he lived.
And it saddens me that a whole generation of African-Americans don't really know who he is, that the doors didn't swing open for them by accident.
President Kennedy once said, "The most important thing we do in life, the only one that really lives after us, is not our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but our contributions to the human spirit."
Martin Luther King Jr.'s contribution to the human spirit -- it's beyond immense. It is immeasurable. Please take at least a part of this holiday to appreciate all he gave us.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. This is reprinted in part from a Sunshine State News column published Jan. 16, 2011. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith