By: Rebecca S. Jones
HOUSTON – “The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.” Undoubtedly, when the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered this statement, he was unaware that his untimely demise would afford him only a 39-year span. In less than four decades, his life’s work would serve to heavily influence the structure and design of the Civil Rights Movement in a way that the world had never seen before. With his triumphant and inspiring speeches, non-violent protest demonstrations and organized marches and boycotts, Dr. King evolved into the predominant leader of the Civil Rights Movement with an emphasis on overcoming racial segregation and discrimination in America.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Michael King to Martin Luther, Sr. and Alberta Williams King on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1944, he enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Four years later, he became an ordained minister, was appointed assistant Pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Morehouse College and began studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Crozer with a Bachelor of Divinity degree and immediately began his graduate studies at Boston University.
Over the course of the next few years he married Coretta Scott in Marion Alabama, initiated his pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, attained his Doctorate in Systematic Theology from Boston University and was appointed President of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). In 1955, Dr. King led the historic 13-month long Montgomery bus boycott, incited by Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks. During the process, he was arrested and his home was bombed, however, the nonviolent protest was successful. The following year, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling of Browder v. Gayle deemed segregation unconstitutional for the Montgomery public bus system.
Determined to secure equality for African-Americans, Dr. King established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Within the organization he continued to promote social change by organizing peaceful protests, many of which were publicized through media outlets, thereby raising the awareness and emphasizing the importance of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into legislation through Dr. King’s efforts and leadership of the SCLC.
A Dream Continued…
On August 28, 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and delivered his prophetic rendition of I Have a Dream, with a diverse crowd of over 250,000. Without fear or favor, he challenged the validity of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Negro people. Refusing to believe that the, “bank of justice is bankrupt”; Dr. King envisioned a glorious day for Africans living in America. He declared on that day that the Negro people were demanding reform at that very instant, insomuch that their descendants would be heirs to the liberties and freedoms that he and others stood for. Simultaneously, he encouraged those who stood with him to resist the bonds of “bitterness and hatred”. Dr. King aimed to promote peace amongst Blacks and Whites and explained that each race’s destiny and freedom was intertwined with the other.
He began in his delivery by saying, “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 languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
As Dr. King continued in his notoriously compelling speech, he assured that the Negro would never be content until true citizenship rights have been achieved. He conveyed the disgust of Negro’s being victims of, unspeakable horrors of police brutality, deplorable living conditions and an unbalanced scale of justice. Furthermore, he beckoned the Negro people to remain vigilant and confident in knowing that their situation could and would be changed. At the heart of all that he encouraged Black folks to do, he adamantly promoted the active ingredient of hope, which is faith.
“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 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. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom 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…”
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. On that dreadful day, one of the greatest visionary’s known to the African-American community was killed; however, the dream that he left on record continues to live on. The true affects of a person’s life is really manifested once they are deceased. The amount of influence that a person has had when they are no longer here to impose it can truly be defined at that moment.
“Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love; it destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
In the assassination of Dr. King, his enemies thought that if they alleviated him from amongst society, it would eliminate the vision he imputed within the hearts and minds of African-Americans around the country. It is unfortunate that the violent lifestyle that Dr. King forbad was the one that he met his final destination with. Yet, he left many powerful words of encouragement and motivation for his followers.
On February 4, 1968, Dr. King delivered a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. A portion of it was read at his funeral. “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important…. I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody…. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.” He also prophesied during his Mountaintop speech as if he could envision his own departure. He said, “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.”
Understandably, the complete fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream has yet to be manifested within society. Despite the numerous incidents of police brutality, mass incarceration, racial profiling and the long list of other injustices imposed on the Black community; the truth is that we have still come a long way. If we were to press the rewind button of history, we would find that fifty-years ago, the Negro was emphatically fighting to secure the right to vote and the basic liberty of gaining access to public places as their White counterparts.
Yet, here we are in 2018 and have just witnessed the close of an eight-year tenure of the first Black president of the United States of America, in addition to serving under countless other African-American elected officials currently in office. I’d say going from no right to vote, to being voted into the highest office in the nation is a major accomplishment. In 2018, not only do African-Americans frequent the very places of which we were once banned, but we own many of them now. Of course, various invidious discriminations still exist for members of the Black community, but the modern African-American is still much better off than the generations that preceded us.
There have been a plethora of African-American leaders, who have left remarkable footprints in the sand, in the struggle for civil, social and equal rights and justice for the Black community. However, the vision and legacy that Dr. King left on record, is one that can’t be white-washed out of the history books. Perhaps one of the greatest attributes that set him apart from other leaders was his peaceful stance of non-violent protest demonstrations. Though some tend to criticize his methods, Dr. King fervently led the movement in correlation with the core beliefs of his own spiritual convictions as a Baptist minister. Not only did he preach about promoting, compassion for humanity, love, peace and nonviolence; but, he exemplified it to the utmost in his own life.
Within his lifetime of activism, Dr. King encountered a number of highs and lows. He was constantly threatened and experienced harassing phone calls, his home was bombed, he was stabbed, hit in the face, repeatedly arrested and jailed, phones were wiretapped by the FBI per the US Attorney General’s request and experienced various other perils for promoting social change and justice for the African-American community. He also received letters from the governor of New York, president and vice president of the United States. He later met Vice President Richard Nixon, President Dwight Eisenhower, Presidential John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss social change for African-Americans in Washington. In 1964, Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination through nonviolent means.
Dr. King and his wife, Coretta shared four children, Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther, III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine King. He became the author of several books including: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Strength to Love (a book of sermons), Why We Can’t Wait and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?