DECADES AFTER HIS ASSASSINATION, the call for justice articulated through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) remains the single most powerful determinant in the American Civil Rights movement. King’s basic message was a simple one:
“To my children… for whom I dream that one day soon they will no longer be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” ~ Martin Luther King
How to turn vision into reality was, for King, not just a matter of the mass organizational skills for which he is remembered but of personal responsibility. King was strongly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi in setting his agenda and deciding on the appropriate methods to achieve it. Like Gandhi, he did not separate the agenda from the means, nor did he minimize the difficulties to come.
It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King’s background was religious. Coming from an institution full of social capital, he knew many people and had deep community relationships. Churches provided the movement with an organized base, as well as leadership largely economically independent of the larger white society. Dr. King would be already skilled in managing resources and people; volunteering, running meetings, managing disagreements, allocation of funding on projects, and other forms of leadership responsibility. The church also provided meeting places where he planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed many to the struggle. Most visible would be his style of speech; southern Baptist orator. King believed that the right behavior lead to the right consequences, and due to this, the Afro-American must be granted basic human respect. So, Dr. King’s religious background, Christianity — the primary religion of the United States — was instrumental to his philosophy and command skill.
In an Apartheid America Dr. King dealt with, and to a great extent changed, racism was disturbingly overt. The South wanted to continue laws mandating racial segregation — Jim Crow Law — a system of debasement so thorough that it extended from churches and schools, real estate, housing and jobs, eating and drinking, public restrooms, all forms of public transportation, to prisons, asylums, and ultimately funeral homes, morgues and cemeteries. In other words, a caste system, which allowed King to take parallel tactics from Gandhi with positive effect. King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation would lead to international media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that the Civil Rights Movement was the most important issue in American politics at the time. Much like mainstream white sentiment of American Slavery years prior, out of sight out of mind; many Americans were not aware of the extent of the psychological brutality and at large denied anything wrong about the matter at hand… much like modern day.
Dr. King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights and other basic civil rights. King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) two years later, serving as its first president. King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his his most famous speech “I have a Dream”. Unfortunately he also established his reputation as a radical, and became an object of the J.Egdar Hoover’s COINTELPRO for the rest of his life. The FBI investigated him for possible communist ties, made numerous attempts to blackmail him, made numerous death threats via mail and phone, firebombed his house, and plotted numerous assassination attempts. In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated (sniped) on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets have been renamed in his honor. A memorial statue on the National Mall was opened to the public in 2011.
Every Third Monday is honored as Martin Luther King Day, as a floating Holiday. Many invoke King’s name. Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Before anyone assumes political alignment, I suggest honoring this man by researching him. Honor this man by reflecting on what he taught, and what he stood for. Honor this man by treating your fellow man right, regardless of race, sex, or creed. And that’s the Bigger Picture.
photo credit: Grey Villet