Martin Luther King, Jr.

This coming Monday we shall celebrate a national holiday here in the U.S., the birth of civil rights leader, The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated April 4,  1968, while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
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I was a sophomore in college that spring and heard the news from one of my roommates. I remember my first reaction: “Not another one!”

By 1968 political assassination in my country was far too common. JFK and Malcolm X, both larger-than-life figures to me, had gone before, along with Medgar Evers whom I learned of only with his death. By the night of April 4, 1968, political assassination by gun felt commonplace. And RFK’s would follow just two months later.

But this is a blog post honoring MLK.

Best known for bringing the nonviolent tenets of Mahatma Ghandi’s struggle for Indian independence from Great Britain in the 1930s and 40s to the United States’ civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., was an outspoken critic on many issues of the day including the Vietnam War, poverty, racism, and the overpopulation of our planet.

For me, growing up in the 50s, listening to the stories of blacks sitting at all-white lunch counters, boycotting the buses, integrating all-white schools and universities, marching from one southern town to another, and being beaten and arrested for doing so … it all seemed so very far away.

Distant, both psychologically as well as geographically. For, you see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I grew up in what we would now call a “heavily integrated” neighborhood, town, region of the country: just outside Newark, New Jersey.

That was my home, it was the life I knew and “separate but equal” was a meaningless concept to me. Black faces, brown faces, tan faces, freckled faces: they all blurred together and meant nothing to me.

As I look back on those growing up years, I remember in grade school I wanted to be like Anne Dunne who got all A’s and had a father, a really nice father. Then, in high school, at least by my senior year, I considered Linda Holmes my best friend. We worked together on the school paper and it was to her house I flew the night I graduated.

My life included no “separate but equal.” We were all just kids, trying to grow up at a time when the Soviets were considered the enemy. Why those southern whites were being so mean I just couldn’t understand.

In 1964, two years before I graduated high school, MLK became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the first of many awards, accolades, medals, and honors.  Yet, at his funeral, his earlier request that no mention of these be made, but that “it be said that he tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be right on the [Vietnam] war question, and love and serve humanity” was honored.

Thanks to
Thanks to

This quote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” from his 1963 book, Strength in Love, is among my favorites. 


Martin Luther King, Jr., was a controversial figure in life and continued to be so in death. It took nearly twenty years for my government to declare his birthday, January 15, 1929,  a federal holiday. And still today, there are states in our country that refuse to honor his  name.

Most egregiously, Alabama and Arkansas use Robert E. Lee’s birthday as their state-wide holiday on January 18. Mississipi simply offers a “State Holiday.” And in the north, out west in Idaho, folks will celebrate “Idaho Human Rights Day. ” But in most of the rest of the country, the Monday following his actual birthday, which means January 18 this year, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy will be celebrated.

Around the country, towns and communities have made plans for the traditional MLK Day of Service  You can find an activity near you at this website. 

I was priviledged to teach the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., when I lived in Kazakhstan. There, my fourth-year students read MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and wrote out their own “I have a dream” essays.

I urge you to read his speech anew this year.

King’s 1963 I Have A Dream excerpt

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Here’s the FULL TEXT

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Another of my favorite MLK Jr. quotes:

Thanks to
Thanks to

What was your experience of race growing up? And how does it inform your attitudes today? What’s your favorite MLK quote? 

5 Responses

  1. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    I view most politicians with a sense of intense distrust because they are invariably only interested in self-agrandisement, power, and their own political doctrines. That was as true of all the greats of the past, like Churchill, Truman, and even Ghandi as it is today. But Martin Luther King Jr broke that mould. He was the genuine article, the man who actually cared about the welfare of humanity and society. He believed what he preached to the very core of his soul. That’s what made him different and why he stands out, and always will do as a leader. The only other who comes anywhere near him is Nelson Mandela.

    All of today’s world leaders, and even our minor civic officialsand captains of industry, should be required to read MLK’s speech at least once a week, until its message becomes part of their soul too and the core of the way they act.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ian. Of course MLK wasn’t trying to win votes. So, he had the advantage of being able to speak his mind.

      I have a different take on politics though. I grew up firmly embedded in the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” mindset. And so, I believe we get the politicians we deserve. I believe that the more we pull ourselves out of the process, the more it’s taken over by some group of “politically sophisticated elites.” So, distasteful as it sometimes is, I believe we owe it to our future generations to stay involved.

      That said, my ideal scenario doesn’t work well when the education of the vast majority of people is so very lacking in basic critical thinking skills.

      It’d be interesting to discuss how our respective histories have colored our current views. And, while we’re on it, I hear your Queen is planning to take us back, if we wind up electing the more boisterous of our various candidates. That would work for me; I love tea. 🙂

  2. Lee
    | Reply

    I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in an Alabama city. Our racial lines were clearly drawn by neighborhood with every black person living in only one big neighborhood. However, I saw black people almost every day because I lived on the busiest street in town and I had a hobby of sitting on the front porch watching traffic and people.
    As a child it became confusing when the civil rights movement began and then frightening as the marches began. I was never physically exposed to any of it and only had a taste of the excitement of things when my high school was integrated in 1964. What a day that was! The kids “chosen” to enter our school were very few…only 4 in a sea numbering approximately 800 white kids. I didn’t know any other race of people at that time. I cannot imagine the bravery it took to walk up,those steps on the first day of school. However, they seamlessly meshed with everyone and it was no big deal…not to the kids anyway. I have no idea what the parents thought because my parents didn’t discuss it around me and as far as I knew didn’t hold any particular racial views or prejudice. The times were innocent, however. I didn’t know what class privilege was either. For example, I never thought to ask a friend what their father did for a living (moms didn’t work unless it was in a family business, usually).
    I’m a bit confused regarding your statement about Alabama combining MLK and REL holidays. I’ve never heard of celebrating REL’s birthday…I don’t even know when it is…but we’ve always acknowledged MLK day and every city I know of in the south has a prominent MLK street downtown.
    You won’t be surprised I’m liberal. I probably never had a chance to be otherwise…thankfully.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Lee, and welcome. I’m always pleased to see a new voice here. And thank you for sharing your story too. As a northerner, I have to say yours is the first southern voice I’ve heard speak of that time. I was grateful to hear you speak of the bravery it took to walk into your school.

      As for your question about Robert E Lee day, I’d not heard of it either, before I began researching for this post. I found it listed among a list of holidays on January 18, by state. I know why I’ve never heard of it (I live one hour from Canada). But Im surprised that you haven’t. Do you still live in Alabama?

      Again, my thanks for your participation.

  3. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    On this topic of what we find “normal,” I found an OpEd piece this morning from London (England), Independent, written by Victoria Princewill, and published just Sunday, January 17. A black student at Oxford, she says, “I do not have the luxury of being normal; no minority does.”

    I wish I could get her here. I’d love to hear her take on how we use “normal.” Is it a luxury that whites get to indulge in? As a member of the majority all my life (a white, middle-class baby boomer, though female and I did stutter. Still, all the ads targeted me for decades) I need to remember minorities will necessarily have a different perspective.

    Here’s the link to her article:

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