As a person born after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I was not a witness to the loud calls for justice that took place in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Like many generations that followed, my knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. primarily came from what I was taught in school and from archival film clips of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.
With that rote knowledge, I, like many others, felt that I had a good idea of who Dr. King was and what he stood for. My idea of him was a noble, calm, and well-spoken civil rights leader. Indeed, he was all of those things, but he was also so much more. He was fire and brimstone, determined, strategic, and human.
Reflecting upon his life and career, he was an individual who willingly became a foot soldier for equality, during a Vesuvius explosion of cultural, political and social change. This period of time in American history could easily be classified as the rebirth of a nation.
MLK's most daring acts of faith were his strategical acts of nonviolence. His stance to fight physical power with soul power, was and still is, a radical choice of weapons. At a time when black people were not legally guaranteed basic human rights in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. had the audacity to demand that America be true to its commitments on paper, as was written in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He prophesied, "If this problem of racism does not get solved, the soul of our nation will be lost. The only way to redeem the soul of America is to eradicate racism in all of its dimensions."
Dr. King often referred to himself as the drum major for justice, peace and righteousness. At this time, anyone choosing to be an advocate for change was routinely met with fire hoses, police beatings and attack dogs. Being the national face of the civil rights movement did not provide Dr. King a reprieve from the violence in an ivory tower. His house was firebombed, he was stabbed in the chest, and jailed over 20 times.
In the face of such brutal attacks MLK's insistence upon nonviolent strategies was met with admiration and ridicule from both blacks and whites. His definition of nonviolence clarified that nonviolence is not the same as nonresistance. During the movement, the strategy of nonviolence was used as a form of Agape love that was organized, direct, and intended to disturb the oppressor's consciousness, and shift them into a more just way of being. In essence Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to achieve moral ends through moral means.
By the late 1960s Dr. King began to publicly denounce the war in Vietnam. He noted that prior to his comments about the war, he received praise from the press for his stance of nonviolence tactics against whites in the South, however, he did not gain favor from the press by advocating for nonviolence tactics against people of color in Vietnam.
Although he was certainly not alone in his criticism of the war, he was very vocal in articulating the war's immorality, disproportionate number of blacks being drafted, and the diversion of money for war, that could have been used for domestic social programs. He stated that America had a moral obligation to de-escalate the war, because our government was responsible for escalating the war. He later publicly called for a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam, which was a hard pill to swallow for a nation that prided itself on winning wars.
Throughout this period MLK's popularity with white Americans greatly decreased and some civil rights leaders advised him to just stick to civil rights issues. He was often publicly denounced as a communist and agitator. MLK's response to his critics was, "A man of conscience can never be a consensus leader." and "Peace is not a goal, it is the means in which we arrive at the goal."
In conjunction with his demands to end the war in Vietnam, MLK was began mobilizing a moral crusade against the economic inequities plaguing the United States. With the initiation of his 1968 Poor People's Campaign, he was very aware that it was much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it was to end poverty, guarantee an annual income, and eradicate the slums. Never the less, he marched forward with a conviction to expand the framework of civil rights to include the working poor.
What became his final speech, for striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, is a haunting and foreboding allegory about his courage to face death. What is truly remarkable about the 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' speech is his water-filled eyes, his shaken tone of voice, and the courage he musters to speak beyond his visible fears. It is obvious that as a young man, with a wife and four small children, he knew that his time to live and love, was soon coming to an abrupt end.
In MLK's brief time as a public figure (1957-1968), he delivered 2,500 speeches, wrote five books, traveled six million miles, became Time Magazine's Man of the Year, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and was the keynote speaker for the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation -- The 1963 March On Washington.
However, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s greatest legacy is not his long list of accomplishments, but rather his answer to a call of action, which required faith, morality, and courage, from ordinary people facing injustice on all levels.
This year Dr. King would have been 84 years old. If he had lived over the past 45 years, one can not help but to wonder what his perspective would have been regarding some of the most pressing issues of this time. What would have been his opinion about the women's liberation movement, the nuclear arms race, the war on drugs, gay rights, immigration laws, the prison industrial system, war drones, the Wall Street banking scandals, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring protests? My guess is that his opinions about these issues would have continued to push the comfortable boundaries of our consciousness.
Dr. King's unwavering demand for justice and equality was deeply rooted in his spiritual beliefs and the ideals of the American Dream. As fate would have it, his personal dream for America is still a dream in progress, which continues to inspire and challenge the world today.
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