Martin Luther King, Jr.

posted in: Peace 5

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.
Photo credit: nationalservice.gov

 

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 edyper.hosting.firgo.ru
Thanks to edyper.hosting.firgo.ru

 

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.

 

[learn_more caption=”King’s 1963 I Have A Dream excerpt”]

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. [/learn_more]

 

[learn_more caption=”Here’s the FULL TEXT”] I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.

So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. 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.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. 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. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?”

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

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.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to 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!” [/learn_more]

 

Another of my favorite MLK Jr. quotes:

 

Thanks to sodahead.com
Thanks to sodahead.com

 

 

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:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/as-we-jump-to-criticise-those-who-want-rhodes-to-fall-and-advocate-trigger-warnings-we-forget-our-a6817681.html

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