|When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, the United States was experiencing a great deal of turbulence and division. Divisive issues included race, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. Segregation and systemic denials of civil rights to African-Americans were the law of the land in many states. The Ku Klux Klan, which was declared in 1871 by Congress to be a terrorist group, was operating, apparently with impunity. Members of this organization committed numerous murders, including the murder of four young African-American girls, who were killed in a bomb attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The atmosphere of the nation was toxic.
Despite the horrible conditions of war and racism, all was not bleak. There were bright lights in the darkness. One of the brightest of those lights was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Rev. Dr. King, who was born in 1929, was a rare human being: a visionary who could see past injustice, prejudice, and cruelty to a world that valued all people and recognized their talents and contributions to society. His father was a minister, as was his grandfather. Martin Luther King followed their footsteps. He graduated from high school at the age of fifteen. He obtained an undergraduate degree in sociology from Morehouse College in 1948. He then attended the Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. After graduating from seminary, he attended Boston University, earning his Ph.D. in 1955. He was 25 years old.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a civil rights leader and a spiritual leader. He was called to be pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He helped to organize the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving her seat to a white man. He became co-pastor with his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1960.
In 1959, King, traveled to India to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi and nonviolent civil resistence, a tactic that the civil rights movement in the United States adopted.
King was unusual because of the way that he expressed his vision and because of the way that he was able to move people’s hearts. In my lifetime, I cannot think of another leader, religious or political, who had the same magnetic appeal that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had. He was arrested 29 times for civil resistance actions. He inspired many people to action and was able to fill the jails and bring the issue of racism to the public. He also protested against the Vietnam War, saying that the United States government “is the greatest purveyor of violence today.” He criticized the priorities of the U.S. government and said that spending more resources on violence and killing than on programs of uplift was leading it to approach “spiritual death.”
King criticized everyone who failed to support civil rights for all. He said that white moderates were worse than the most extreme segregationists because they counseled “a go slow and don’t do anything illegal approach,” which he said was completely ineffective. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he explained that, there are times when the law and justice are not the same thing. Segregation was legal but it was not just. In Nazi Germany, King pointed out, everything that Adolf Hitler did was legal. Hitler’s actions were crimes against humanity. Both segregation and Hitler’s crimes were motivated by prejudice against entire groups of people.
King’s “I have a dream speech” expressed his hopes for a brighter future for succeeding generations. It was spoken in poetic language and it painted a picture of a nation free of racism, prejudice, and cruelty. Approximately 200,000 people heard that speech, which was given in the Washington Mall.
King’s message was inclusive of all. He talked about creating a “beloved community,” in which everyone would be valued. It would be a community free of bigotry and a world free of war.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. His dream, unfortunately, has yet to be realized. Racism is still very much alive in the United States. But we can do better and we must do better. Each one of us can do more to make our world a better place, free of the sin and scourge of racism, prejudice, and cruelty. Each one of us can do our part to create the beloved community. Our nation and the world will be a better place for it.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, I was in sixth grade. The school that I went to did not have a cafeteria. All of the children went home at lunch and returned for the afternoon. After lunch that day, I walked back to school and saw that at least half of my classmates were not there. I later heard that many parents kept their children home because they were afraid that there would be “riots.” There were no riots; there was just a bunch of adults looking as if they were about to cry but who didn’t want to do so in front of children. That afternoon, the teacher departed from the usual curriculum and carried on a discussion about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great visionary. She asked all of us for our thoughts and our feelings. It was the first time in my life that a teacher asked me for my opinion. I am sure that was true of the rest of my classmates, both black and white.
“…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.