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I Marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We've Forgotten How to Truly Honor Him (Exclusive)

"We all have to work together to make this country go," Florence Cunningham writes in a personal essay for PEOPLE

<p>Getty Images</p> American Religious and Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) gives his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd before the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.

Getty Images

American Religious and Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) gives his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd before the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963.

Florence Cunningham, an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer in the Foster Grandparent Program, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama in 1965. She continues to honor his legacy in this personal essay for PEOPLE by encouraging everyone to volunteer on Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service on Jan. 15 and throughout the year.

I grew up in a small town in Illinois, called Hillsboro. It was very prejudiced there, and that veil of darkness would cast its shadow again when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona.

One particular night, a restaurant wouldn’t allow my uniformed husband, who served in the Air Force, inside. They turned us away and would not allow us to eat in their establishment. They made us take our food to go.

These experiences made me angry; I was ready to fight. So, when I saw flyers about joining the civil rights movement, I knew it was my time to join the fight.

But when I arrived, the first words I heard were: “If you’ve come to fight, go home because we’re not going to fight; this is a peaceful movement.” And hearing that made me angry all over again.

But the more I listened to Martin Luther King Jr. speak, the calmer I became; his words reached inside and found a deeper meaning. The man had a beautiful voice; he had a powerful voice that could grip you and make you believe in what he believed in.

Related: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Son Reveals Why He 'Never Felt Afraid' While Facing Brutal Racism with Dad

<p>Florence Cunningham</p> Florence Cunningham.

Florence Cunningham

Florence Cunningham.

In late March 1965, I joined Dr. King and others in Alabama for the march from Selma to Montgomery. We walked through the day and slept in fields along the roadside at night. All the while, aircrafts flew overhead, and people fired gunshots over our heads. They shouted at us to go home and go back where we belonged.

We tried to eat at the local lunch counters and were thrown in jail for trying to conduct a peaceful sit-in. You can’t imagine or understand what it is like to be in a situation like that. I had experienced discrimination before, but never to that extent. To be sprayed with water, have dogs turned on you to bite you and see police with guns telling you that you can’t eat there. I had never felt so much power turned against me. It was scary — very scary.

Related: Texas Fifth Grader Delivers Inspiring Speech for MLK Jr. Day: 'Like Dr. King, I Have A Dream'

<p>Morton Broffman/Getty Images</p> Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrives in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25th 1965 at the culmination of the Selma to Montgomery March.

Morton Broffman/Getty Images

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. arrives in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25th 1965 at the culmination of the Selma to Montgomery March.

There were so many times we were all ready to give up, but Dr. King kept us all going.

Our group traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to attempt to help the striking sanitation workers there organize and become a union. We were originally scheduled to stay at a different hotel, but they ended up turning us away. So we found rooms on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel.

Dr. King and a few of the other leaders were discussing heading over to Ralph Abernathy’s house to eat some good ol’ Black food. Dr. King had been warned already not to go out on the balcony. But he wanted to speak to his constituents, and he headed outside. He had only been out there about five minutes or so.

<p>AP Photo/Charles Kelly</p> The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place.

AP Photo/Charles Kelly

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968, a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place.

Related: Reverend Baptized and Ordained by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: 'He Attracted Your Imagination'

Then a shot rang out. And I just felt it in my heart that he was going to die.

I and others came flying out of our rooms. We ran to him, desperate to find something we could do to help, something that could save him. But there wasn’t anything anyone could do. He was gone.

Initially, everyone wanted to fight, much like the rest of the country. But we realized that we needed to honor Dr. King's wishes and remain peaceful.

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Just the day before, Dr. King gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He talked about the threats against his life and warned of difficult days ahead. “But it doesn’t matter to me now,” he said. “Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.”

Today, a lot of people have forgotten what those days were like. They may celebrate the national holiday, but they have forgotten Martin Luther King. Jr. Those of us who were there will always remember. But for others, they might not know how to truly honor him.

<p>Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images</p> Thousands of people gather at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 26, 2023, for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington when in 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his dream of a more just and equitable America.

Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Thousands of people gather at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 26, 2023, for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington when in 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his dream of a more just and equitable America.

Related: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Daughter Calls on People to 'Remember and Honor my Mother, as Well'

Today, I honor Dr. King by serving with AmeriCorps as a Foster Grandparent. I have been serving in an elementary school in Sterling, Illinois, for many years and am in my second year in a second-grade classroom, reading with students and helping them with math. It’s very rewarding. I’ve found you can always learn from the children, as they’ll teach you some things you’ve maybe forgotten. It’s the greatest reward for me.

It was a great experience with Dr. King; it was something that I never thought I would get into or that I could become a part of. It was something I learned to love and always remember, and to be peaceful in whatever I do in life from then on. No more ugliness, no more trying to fight, no more even thinking about it.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service provides a wonderful opportunity to honor Dr. King’s legacy by working toward a more just and equitable society, where everyone is valued and respected, regardless of their race, ability, religion or background. More people should know what it is all about and how it came to affect everybody’s lives. They should never forget that, especially in the world today. The movement, the marching, the peaceful acknowledgment from everyone, not just one person — we all have to work together to make this country go.

Serving on MLK Day can be a great way to start volunteering throughout the year. Volunteers are needed in every community in America — it’s why I became involved in AmeriCorps Seniors and encourage others to serve as well.

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