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.
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.
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.
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
Here’s the FULL TEXT
Another of my favorite MLK Jr. quotes:
What was your experience of race growing up? And how does it inform your attitudes today? What’s your favorite MLK quote?