Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only
Written content only
Today, we celebrate a singular holiday. Out of all those that speckle the calendar, this one is unusual in that it is the only one specifically named for one American. But in meaning, it is much more.
Dr. Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929. He grew to be a minister, earning a PhD from
. He possessed that singular gift of lyrical
oratory, giving life to mere words, delivering them not just to the ears, but
to the heart. Boston University
The American civil rights movement, way overdue, was gathering steam. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct. What followed was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted 381 days, cost the bus line some 80% of its revenue and only ended when a federal court ordered the bus system to be desegregated. Dr. King led this protest and brought his name into national prominence. It was not an easy victory, however. At it’s height, King’s house was bombed.
The bus boycott proved to be the turning point. Dr. King became the face and the voice of civil rights.
His development included influence by theologian and educator Howard Thurman. Thurman introduced the young minister to the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, who had turned non-violent protest into a potent weapon against British colonialism. King, who visited the Indian leader’s birthplace, was profoundly moved by Gandhi’s story. On his final day in
India, he said, "Since being in ,
I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance
is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for
justice and human dignity.” India
Back in the
King, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, began to lead a
series of non-violent protests. He and
thousands of others marched for African-American’s right to vote,
desegregation, labor rights among other issues.
Throughout the south, sit-ins were held at lunch counters that banned
blacks. The protests were non-violent,
but directly confrontational, which led to violent reactions by southern
whites. United States
In 1963, the SCLC launched a campaign against segregation and economic injustice in
. Protests were widespread, but the turning
point was when the Birmingham Police Department, led by Birmingham, Alabama “Bull” Connor, turned fire hoses and
police dogs loose on the protesters.
Some responded, helped by bystanders who apparently decided they’d seen
enough. The campaign was a success. The signs of Jim Crow were taken down, and
blacks were allowed more access to public places. King said later, “We know through painful
experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be
demanded by the oppressed.” Eugene
Protests continued, and the arrests mounted. King himself was arrested 29 times during his career. On August 28, 1963, King led a march on
. It was there at the Lincoln Memorial that Dr.
King gave the speech that would define him historically. “I Have a Dream” resonated with most
Americans and has been regarded as one of the best speeches in American
history. While he spoke in grave terms
about the situation for blacks in the south, it was also full of hope, hope
which has fuelled the movement since. Washington DC
In March 1965, an attempt to march from
Selma to the Alabama state capital of was broken by powerful violence
from mobs and the state police. News
footage of the police brutality committed by the state troopers aroused
national outrage. This event, known as
Bloody Sunday, brought the reality of the black’s plight into the living rooms
of Americans across the country. Montgomery
Dr. King’s influence now extended to the White House, having met with President’s Kennedy and Johnson. Despite some setbacks, the civil rights movement had achieved real successes.
In March 1968, King went to
to support black sanitary public
works employees in an ongoing strike. On
April 3rd, in what would be his last public address, he seemed to
presage the tragedy which would occur the next day. Memphis, Tennessee
“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.”
The next evening, as Dr. King stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, an assassin’s bullet struck him in the face. He died an hour later.
A nationwide wave of riots ensued in the wake of Dr. King’s death. But other things happened as well. A few days later, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1968, which, coupled with the Voting Rights act passed four years earlier, officially codified the aims of the civil rights movement.
Much progress has been made, but we still have a ways to go before we truly are a colorblind society.
Most revolutions are fought with weapons. This revolution was fought with words articulating the urgent cry for freedom and justice. Dr. King wasn’t in this fight for fame or money. He was in it because he knew that in the systemic oppression of American blacks, our country had utterly failed to live up to the ideals which had defined it at it’s birth. His battlecry came from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.”
He told us truths that made us uncomfortable. He showed us the reality of what it was like to live on the business end of racial prejudice. He showed us the ugliness of hate and anger, and the violent depravity that humans are capable of.
But he also held up to us a vision of love, of peace and reconciliation. He proved to us that it was possible for this nation to rise above anger, hatred, and suspicion. He showed us that we could stand together, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, linked by those ideals of freedom and justice that have set this nation apart.
The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is preserved in countless memorials across this country. But his legacy will only remain alive as long as we continue to work to make the
nation; under God. Indivisible, with
liberty and justice for all.” United States of America