|On April 4, 1968, I was in a barbershop late in the day. My father took me for a haircut and while I was waiting, a bulletin came in on the news to explain that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I was only 14 years old. What I remember the most was that my dad said “why can’t people just vote against someone? Why do they have to kill anyone?” That is a good question even today.|
When I later visited the tombstone of Dr. King it was a very solemn
experience for me. To think for a minute about the causes that he stood for, and how much courage he had, especially to stand up for people who could not defend themselves, is amazing.
Not everyone was so excited. I taught Management at the University
of Dallas for 19 years before my stroke hit me. It was only two years ago
that the school decided to observe the holiday. It is also true that President Ronald Reagan was opposed to the holiday, claiming that if we have any more, why do people need to go to work? On the floor of the U.S. Senate, without evidence, Jesse Helms claimed that King was a communist supporter. When asked, Reagan said “we will know in about 35 years won’t we,” talking about when the ceremonial capsule would be unsealed. However, under pressure, Reagan capitulated in the final months of 1983. He sat on the White House lawn and signed a bill establishing a federal holiday for a man he had spent the previous two decades opposing. What did they do? They sang “We Shall Overcome,” which was very appropriate for the occasion.
It is impossible to cover everything he did, and what he was, in this
space. Dr. King was known as an activist and minister who promoted and
organized nonviolent protests. He played a pivotal role in advancing civil
rights in America. Dr. King won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to fight
racial inequality in a non-violent matter.
While he is most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech, it was the
letter from the Birmingham Jail that is more memorable. If you have never read it, you can find it in many different sources. The letter demonstrates his command of figurative language. He used a strong call to action tone both in writing and speaking. You cannot ignore how he turned the non-violent protests around in America and showed people how to lead in a different, but stronger way. Unfortunately, some supporters did exactly what King did not want to do, by resorting to violence in streets.
In “The March on Washington” in 1963, Dr. King helped lead over
200,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the Washington
Monument. The King march was organized by him and groups of civil rights, labor, and religious organizations. The purpose was to gain civil and economic equality for African-Americans (then, called Negros). It was the strongest call ever to put an end to racism. His march was crucial in helping to pass the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Dr. King also was famous for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Birmingham Campaign. As a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, he brought many new ideas for which had never been publicly expressed. He was also the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
History tells us that the assassin of Dr. King in Memphis was James
Earl Ray. You can see the photos taken on the balcony when King was shot. Among them is the Reverend Jesse Jackson and others who pointed up to that floor of the motel. Yet before his death, the family claimed otherwise. They said that James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King. “It pains my heart,” said Bernice King, “that James Earl Ray had to spend his life in prison paying for things he didn’t do.”
Until her own death in 2006, Coretta Scott King, was very clear that she believed that a conspiracy led to the assassination. Her family filed a civil suit in 1999 to turn more information publicly, and a jury ruled that the local, state, and federal governments were liable for King’s death.
The low point in his career was plagiarism. While working on his
dissertation for his doctorate at Boston University, he heavily relied on
another author who had done research on the topic. An academic
committee later found that over half of King’s work was plagiarized yet
would not revoke his doctorate. Since he was dead by that time, a review
panel said the action would serve no purpose. The committee found that the dissertation still “makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship.”
In the week when I wrote this blog, a group of men at BIND (Brain
Injury Network of Dallas) discussed the topic about “how the world would be different if they were never born.” The idea came from the story about George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We can see that there is no question about how the world would be different without Dr. King.
My view is that the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have been
extremely slow. The leadership of the non-violent movement would have
been in shambles. We would not have experienced his oratory, which was best anyone would have wanted. His murder was senseless. But, like
martyrs before and after him, the contributions are timeless.
That is why we honor him today with this holiday.