Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Photo on hundreds of websites without attribution)
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, January 18, 2010
as "America is Strongest When it Stands United"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only
America in 1954 was a segregated nation, and nowhere more oppressive than the south. Years of systematic and institutionalized racism had fueled the anger and frustration among black Americans. The brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till, followed by the astonishing acquittal of the two murderers (who later admitted their guilt), pushed that rage to the breaking point. The Civil Rights Movement in America had begun. All that was required was the right person to provide its unifying national voice.
In 1955, a young charismatic Baptist Pastor in Montgomery, Alabama with a brand-new PhD, led a boycott of that city’s bus system after a courageous woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Through his gift of powerful oratory and his genius for organization, he united blacks and kept them faithfully holding the line for almost a year. With the bus system on the brink of bankruptcy, the city then admitted defeat, vacating the segregation laws.
This was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first successful action in the struggle to come. Following the bus boycott, he organized the Southern Christian Leadership Council, providing him a strong organization in the south, and through the power of the new medium of television, access to a national audience as well. Over the next 12 years, he became the face and voice for racial justice. No one, either before or since, has galvanized social and political forces in the way he did. In so doing, he forever altered the American cultural, economic, and political landscape.
The message of justice, equality, and hope was a powerful one by itself. What made Dr. King different was the way he presented that message.
Dr. King never strayed from his Christian roots. The gospel of Jesus Christ, combined with the tactics of non-violent resistance learned from the Indian philosopher and activist Mohandas Ghandi served to present the cause in a language that touched the hearts of nearly all who listened. His characteristic passion gave life to the words he spoke, and the power to shake the human soul.
He spoke of the debt owed by the Founding Fathers, a promissory note drafted in the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
He urged people not to give in to the easy path of violence and hate:
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
And he reminded us all of the singular credo that separates America from all others:
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
“When we allow freedom to ring; when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet; we will speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty! We are free at last!”
The message has survived the man. It still resonates within the hearts of all who possess a sense of compassion and justice. We learned that segregation and prejudice not only imprisoned blacks; it imprisoned us all. It is a prison defined by the steel bars of hate and the rough concrete walls of oppression. Americans hold the key to this cell. We only need to decide to use it.
On this day when we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a true American hero, let us remember that as a nation, we are strongest when we choose to stand united.