Op Ed By: Murray Pierce
On April 4th, 1968, the day started like any other ordinary Memphis Spring day. The 74-degree weather was interrupted by a light warm rain that fell upon the city as many residents went about their day in the manner in which they did the day before and the day before that. By an estimation, an ordinary day.
By 6:02 that evening, the city of Memphis and the United States of America had become anything but ordinary.
The evening prior, during a raging thunderstorm, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had delivered a mostly unprepared speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. King was present to show support for striking sanitation workers and had been asked to share a few words. That night, amongst the booming thunder and flashing lightning, he made perhaps the most prophetic speech in his career. King had told his audience he had “been to the mountain top” and “seen the promised land.” In his iconic captivating tone, he stated emphatically “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.”
Some 50 plus years after his assassination, we gather throughout the country in various venues to remember and honor a man many have cast as a civil rights champion.
It wasn’t so much King’s oratorical skill set or his characterization as a strong man that set him apart from the crowd. One definition of a strong man or woman is someone who takes a stand in the face of injustice and holds fast to what they define as truth. In Dr. King’s case, as with those who stood with him, that truth revolved around the fight for social, political, and economic equality. Truth be told, there were multitudes of strong men and women from all backgrounds, black, white, red, yellow and brown that formed the base of the civil rights movement.
However, In my estimation, Dr. King was more than a strong man—he was someone who accepted the mantle of leadership and empowered others to champion a cause, in short, he became an exceptional leader. By definition, an exceptional leader is someone who captures the necessity of a truly defined just cause, develops a sense of passion and is able to imbue this belief in others and spur them on to action.
My church pastor growing up was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a well-publicized member of Dr. King’s inner circle; a man who directly endured the dogs, nightsticks, and bullets of those who sought to maintain the race-based status quo. In many respects I was too young at the time to internalize the change that was happening around me, but my family made sure that we knew we were in the midst of an ideological revolution.
I’ve asked myself these last few days about the importance of what Dr. King, his accomplishments, and his message has meant regarding the responsibilities of civic engagement. For me personally, I don’t have to look that far.
I cannot discount the fact that without the efforts of Dr. King, my family, and many others, my life may have been very different. Every time I freely choose a restaurant, every time I use public transportation, every time I go to school, every time I cast a vote, I do so ensconced within the shadows of unknown thousands who have sacrificed for me. I cannot also doubt the fact that without the efforts of Dr. King and members of the movement, our collective lives as Americans may have been somewhat far less than noble.
Through demonstrated non-violent action, Dr. King was able to hold America up to the knife-blade edge of existence and ask of her, which side do you fall off on? Do you land on the side of justice and hope or do you trickle down the slippery slope of continued inequality and self-centered determinism?
It’s also my sense that a great many of us as Americans, black, brown, and white lately act in a manner which suggests that these battles are either over, or in the extreme, unnecessary. Some of us have walked through the door, taken off our hat and gloves, hung up our coat and have lain down to rest comforted in that belief that our work is done, believing we live in a post-racial society. We have become what my father used to describe in his country wisdom as the proverbial “hog under the acorn tree”, our head down constantly consuming, never looking up to see or fully understand that which supplies us. Dr. King admonished us of the false security of this belief when he stated that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
As we commemorate the birth and legacy of Dr. King we do so this year within the context of which many have characterized as a nation divided. A great number of the injustices and inequities highlighted by the civil rights movement as well as new ones persist today. Issues surrounding racism, discrimination, disability, xenophobia, self-defined sexual preference, ethnic and gender based inequities, limited access to basic health care needs, veteran abandonment, substandard education opportunities, disproportionality in terms of representation in our justice system, and poverty are all maladies which infect America in 2019. And like many a disease, the cells that cause the sickness have adapted to the challenges presented by the proposed cure and have in many instances, subtlety morphed into different, yet still deadly entities.
Dr. King was able to articulate to the country that the “dis-ease” we were feeling, with effort, could be eradicated. King understood then what we should pay heed to now, that we are truly, now, perhaps more so than ever, interdependent. He spoke then of the significance of the symbiotic necessities of our existence as individuals and how that translated into how we saw ourselves as a nation and how we would ultimately rid ourselves of our collective societal ill-health. Simply put, he knew that in a very real sense we are family. We are sometimes a sick, irrational, unhealthy and dysfunctional family and like any good analyst, Dr. King spoke to the necessity of laying bare the issues that caused the sickness before we could start the healing process.
The civil rights movement was about all Americans. True, many minorities and marginalized peoples in this country had lived through such an extended period of civil wrongs some had trouble comprehending the concept of civil rights. Perhaps one of the more important points of his legacy was his ability to offer minorities and other marginalized groups in this country a concrete, tangible opportunity to believe in themselves and their right to have a seat at the table. Dr. King also knew that belief in country starts with each individual that comprises that country’s ability to believe that their country believes in them.
We pause this month to take note of the body of work of a man who championed multiracial interaction, intercultural collaboration, and the quest for a more inclusive society. A person who realized the significance of the symbiotic necessities of our existence as individuals and how that translated into who we are as a nation.
We reflect upon his legacy with remembrance, celebration and action in mind.
We remember a time in our not too distant past when America was less than all she could be. We remember Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner, three young men who gave their lives registering folks to vote. We remember Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise, 4 innocent little girls killed in the 16 Street church bombings. We remember Emitt Till, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and countless unsung others who were taken from us far too soon. We also remember and venerate those everyday unknown unsung heroes who fought tirelessly to remind us all that we could do better.
We celebrate a man who had the conviction of his beliefs and his ability to encourage like-minded individuals not to give up, but to persist in the belief that a shared goal was worth fighting for, worth dying for. We celebrate those who supported the cause of civil rights in the face of great personal physical peril as well as familial and cultural estrangement.
We are finally called to action by our persistence, our convictions and our desire to do our part in removing impediments from the road so that those who come after us might have a less difficult path to navigate.
Many of us have asked if he were alive now, what would King say about the state of affairs in today’s world. What would he say about race relations, war, poverty, inequities, and discrimination on all levels and our future? I submit to you that he’s already said it…we’re just a bit late in getting the message.
About war, King said:
“… we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.”
About race relations King said:
“Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
Martin saw issues of poverty as being more about class than about race. One of the lesser-publicized facts about Dr. King is that shortly before his death, he was in the midst of organizing a poor people’s movement, which spanned racial boundaries to combat the conceptual framework that institutionalized poverty.
About poverty King specifically said:
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
“True compassion,” King stated, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
And finally, about the future, King prophetically said:
“If we do not learn to live together as friends, we will die apart as fools.”
On a plaque in the Memphis Lorraine Hotel room where King was slain are these words from the book of Genesis:
“Behold here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what becomes of his dream.”
The Martin Luther King Holiday presents as an opportunity for empowerment, engagement and enlightenment. We clearly have the opportunity to work to fulfill the dream inspired by the man and by the movement. The question that remains for each of us is, are we up to the challenges presented by the opportunity?
I want to close with the words of poet laureate Maya Angelou and her impressions on the importance of Dr. King’s lessons on civic responsibility to all of us, particularly to young people. She writes:
“The effect of a great man or woman is not always visible. That is to say the very fact that we are having this conversation, that there are thousands of young men and women around the country discussing, thinking about Martin Luther King is evidence that his impact has reached you, as well as me, and the hundreds of millions of people.
What it will mean, I pray, is that out of this kind of discussion and the various celebrations you will have, and you have had, out of these celebrations there will come an idea which may have its birth in your mind and you may decide to make life better just for a minute and just in the place where you are.
So if you don’t think of having to be grown-up and having to have power and money and prestige and name and all that, if you don’t believe that that’s the only way you can make a difference, you can be important. Then you can start right now just where you are, there in Missoula, being a better person yourself, being kinder, being more courteous, trying to be a better student, so, that you will make an impact on yourself, on your nation, on your race, on your gender, and, in fact, on the world.
This is how his impact can be seen, you see? So, it’s not, it’s not just for people who are well-known, and big and all that, it’s, the impact is seen on the one young woman in Missoula… that’s where we see the impact of Martin Luther King.”
Dr. King admonished us of the false security of this belief when he stated that “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”