While President Barack Obama quietly took his Oath of Office, dignitaries, celebrities, activists, family members and others gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony on Sunday, January 20th. Eric Tucker from The Huffington Post reports that the Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, actors Jamie Fox and Chris Tucker, and comedian Dick Gregory were among the large crowds who came to the event.
During King’s short life (January 15th, 1929-April 4th, 1968), he helped bring the civil rights movement into our nation’s main stream and forever changed our national discussion on race. Born in Atlanta, GA as the son of a pastor, King attended segregated public schools, received a BA from Morehouse College, completed a BD at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, then earned a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. While in Boston, he married Coretta Scott, with whom he eventually had two sons and two daughters.
By 1954, King was on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) executive committee, and had became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. [biography sources, NobelPrize.org and Wikipedia] Inspired by Mohandas Karamchand Gandi’s use of non-violent civil disobedience to achieve independence for India, King organized the Montgomery [Alabama] Bus Boycott in 1955 to protest Jim Crow Laws which caused civil rights activist Rosa Parks to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a bus. The boycott — during which blacks and sympathetic whites refused to ride city buses — lasted for 385 days, and concluded with a US District Court ruling (Browder v. Gayle) ending racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. During this time, King’s home had been bombed and the reverend had been arrested. The media-savvy King had previously chosen not to pursue an earlier case involving a 15-year-old school girl who refused to give up her seat on a bus, because the girl was pregnant and unmarried.
In 1957, King assumed leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which positioned him to expand his civil rights activism. According to Wikipedia, the group “was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform.” King believed that “organized, nonviolent protest” against segregation and Jim Crow Laws would draw media coverage and gain sympathy from whites. Because of television — then a relatively new media — footage of the appalling “daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks” would be seen by many viewers for the first time. In 1961, King and the SCLC helped organize thousands of demonstrators in Albany, Georgia. On December 15th, he was arrested with other peaceful demonstrators and served a 45-day jail sentence. In 1963, he organized protests and marches in Birmingham, Alabama; St. Augustine, Florida; Selma, Alabama; and Washington, DC. During the March on Washington, on August 28th, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which reads in part:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, 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.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
Nearly 50 years later, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is still considered to be one of the most remarkable speeches in the history of American oratory. Strangely enough, this speech almost never happened. King reportedly had a different speech prepared, and extemporaneously embarked on the one we know and love after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell us about the dream!”
After that, the civil rights movement became increasingly plagued with violence. A planned March 7th, 1965 march in Selma, Alabama was cancelled — not because of the demonstrators, but because of the mob and police violence massed against them. Protests the following year in Chicago drew even more vehement hostility, with screaming crowds and flying bottles. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot as he stood on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. After emergency chest surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the authorities pronounced King dead at 7:05 p.m. that evening. In a grim aside, Taylor Branch — author of “The King Years: Historic Moments In the Civil Rights Movement” and other King biographies — wrote that the autopsy revealed that although King was only 39 years old, “he had the heart of a 60-year-old” due to the stress of running the civil rights movement. Branch also wrote that King’s last words were to the musician Ben Branch, who was supposed to perform at King’s event that evening:
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Fast forward to the present … although we still have a long way to go, Obama’s re-election and his inauguration show that we’ve made progress. Sharpton declared this weekend — which combines the Federal Holiday that honors Martin Luther King Jr. with the second swearing in and inauguration of America’s first black president — an “intersection of history.” He added that “there was a time when no one believed the country would have either a black president OR a federal holiday for a black civil rights leader. Here’s a video with Al Sharpton explaining to BET why the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial forever changes the way our history is told:
|Elisabeth Parker is a writer, Web designer, mom, political junkie, and dilettante. Come visit her at ElisabethParker.Com, “like” her on facebook, or follow her on Twitter. For more articles by Elisabeth, click here.|