So, this is the weekend the USA sets aside to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, (MLK) an icon of the civil rights movement here. Rev. Dr. King was born on 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and assassinated on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He may not have started the civil rights movement, but he certainly brought it to a new level.
Many credit Rosa Parks’ refusal to yield her seat to a white man and move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 as the catalyst that started the civil rights movement in the USA. But the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed her refusal catapulted MLK to the forefront as one of the movement’s primary leaders. MLK didn’t host any riots. He never called for looting, or burning neighborhoods to the ground. Instead he admonished, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.”
MLK never preached hate or covetousness. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom, by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He didn’t encourage his followers to attempt to take or destroy what belonged to someone else.
The Rev. Dr. King strove to uplift all. He knew that those who discriminate wrongly, diminish themselves and hold themselves back from achieving their own full, God-given potential as human beings, as much as the objects of such wrongful discrimination; just not so obviously on face-value.
He wanted Blacks/African Americans to be able to get the jobs their skills could perform, at a rate of pay their competence deserved. He wanted all Americans, regardless of race or skin tone, to be able to vote, to live in the neighborhoods they could afford and attend the schools, colleges and recreation of their choice without discrimination or persecution. Dr. King want the descendants of former slaves and form slave-owners to break the bread of friendship.
What MLK meant to me growing up.
My Italian Catholic grandmother told me about Rev. Dr. King when I was very young, in preschool, I think. She told me about his ‘I have a Dream’ speech. My Italian Catholic grandmother identified with MLK’s desire for all men and women to be “judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.” At that time, I lived with my mom and dad in an apartment complex with all kinds of residents: young couples, older widows, jai-lai players, professors, Jews, Christians, etc. My best friends were a Jewish girl and a Black boy. My Italian grandmother told me this was good, for my friends to be different, to be Jewish and Black, even though I was Catholic and white/Latino. She told me that Dr. King said Black boys and girls should be able to hold hands in brotherhood with white boys and girls.
I understood that this race-blindness was how things should be, but were not so everywhere. My other grandparents didn’t hold with these newfangled notions of racial intermingling. I grew up wanting to be able to be friends with, to marry, to work with and work for those who were the best, regardless of race or creed or color. Maybe that’s why my first real girlfriend after college was mixed-race, Black and German. I grew up believing that what people had in their hearts and minds, as demonstrated by their behavior, was far more important than their skin color. Maybe that’s why I was glad and proud to have an African-American Commandant of Cadets at the Academy when I was a Plebe.
Rev. Dr. King was a role model for me as a kid and as a young man every bit as much as my other heroes including Professor Albert Einstein (E=mc^2) and Dr. Neil Armstrong (first man to set foot on the Moon) and President Washington (father of my country). I wanted to live my life understaning people by who they were on the inside, by their demonstrated behavior; not judging them by their outward appearance or socio-economic status.
What MLK means to me today.
Last year, I bought a copy of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborn Carson. I read many other books last year completely through, but I only made it about a hundred pages into MLK’s Autobiography, because there’s so much to this man, so much to his life.
As a teenager he traveled by train from his home in the south to work on farm in the north. He saw the segregated train cars and the integrated train cars in the north. Teenage boys of all colors chose him to be the spiritual leader.
Dr. King said that he was the fourth generation of his family to be preacher, in that perhaps he didn’t have a choice. But he prepared himself to lead a movement as well. He went to college and graduate school. He read Adam Smith and Karl Marx as well as theologians and sages. He had a photo of Ghandi on his wall. MLK read and wrote and prayed and thought deeply, long before the opportunity came for action. When it did come, doing the right thing was second nature.
Thank you for making this post part of your MLK observance.
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Sources and Credits
I have a dream speech text:
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Clayborne Carson, Editor. Grand Central Publishing, New York. 1998.