Sunday, November 1, 2009

Holiday For Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 15, 1984

The Congress voted and the President signed a bill providing that the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. – January 15 – will be a national holiday beginning in 1986. There has been a mixed reaction. Some persons are troubled that King has been honored with a national holiday while such national heroes and historic persons as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR (to name a few) have not been so honored and commemorated. Others have said there are too many holidays already.

There are also those who have commented cynically that many who voted for the measure did so only because it was politically expedient. The black voters, although a minority, now represent a substantial enough group to be a swing vote in certain elections. To vote “no” would be akin to voting “no” on motherhood (or so it has been said). Of course, there were those who voted “yes” simply because they believed that King was a primary force in establishing civil rights for black people and that he personified, exemplified, and was a martyr to the turnabout in American history where we came to ourselves and accepted the beginning, basic value of the Declaration of Independence, that all are created equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before I state my views on whether I think this is a proper national holiday, I would like to remind us of Martin Luther King, Jr., – how he lived, how he died, the convictions he held, and the influence he exerted.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929 to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The father (for years he has been “Daddy King”) was the son of an impoverished sharecropper. The branch grows from the root. There were many events in the father’s early life that must have molded the son. Let me recount just one, for it throws light on the urgency which the King family felt about civil rights and a fair chance.

Martin Luther King Sr. was about seven years old when he witnessed a murder which he never forgot (DADDY KING, p. 42). In the back country of Georgia, when times were bad, white men out of work were enraged when they encountered a black man who had a job. This rage was not diluted even when it was the case that wages for black men were much lower for comparable work.

Outside the country store, a group of white men, well-stoked with corn liquor, saw a black man walk past after collecting his wages. When profanely insulted by the white men, the black man walked past them trying to smile his way peacefully. Further insults, and of course, no retaliation. Then they tried to take his pay away. The victim put up a struggle, “This money’s for my children, I can’t let you have that.” Attacked, beaten by tree limbs, the black man was overcome. Then one of the whites took off his belt and put it around the victim’s neck and lynched him on a tree. King Sr. writes in his autobiography (p. 44), “I was still there when they’d all gone, staggering off down the road, laughing to themselves, waiving the jugs of corn whiskey they carried. The black man was dead, his head all twisted over, his feet five or six inches off the ground. Suddenly I could hear my breathing coming through me harder and harder, and then there was a scream pouring through my lips that nobody heard but me. Why, I thought, why did they do ‘that.’”

King Sr. did not stay in the poor back country. He was a minister at 15, but an uneducated one. Determined to learn, at the age of 21 he was in the fifth grade [CJW note: working his way/job]. But he went on, learned, and was eventually accepted at Morehouse College. He succeeded to the prominent pulpit of his father-in-law, Reverend A. Williams at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

To this couple, Martin Luther King Jr. was born, went to public schools in Atlanta, and at 15 years old passed the entrance examination at Morehouse College – before graduating from high school. At Morehouse, King received a B.A. in sociology. From there he went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA, a liberal Baptist seminary. (Those of you who have attended our Wednesday night discussion groups have heard me frequently cite Morton Enslin in our considerations of the New Testament. Dr. Enslin was for many years Professor of Bible Studies at Crozer).

At Crozer, King began his serious studies of the life and teachings of Gandhi under the stimulus of lectures by A.J. Muste (for years the courageous pacifist of the Fellowship of Reconciliation) and Dr. Mordecai Johnson.

Graduating in 1951 from Crozer, King went on to Boston University school of theology where he earned a PhD. In 1953 King and Coretta Scott were married. They had met in Boston where Coretta Scott, born in Marion, AL, was studying voice at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music after graduating from Antioch. Four children were born to this marriage: Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, and Albertine.

In October 1954, King was installed as minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. In 1955 and 1956, the young minister was propelled into national attention by events in Montgomery. This is the bare outline of these events:

December 1, 1955 – Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress, refused to yield her seat on the bus to a white man, and she was arrested.

December 5, 1955 – First day of the bus boycott. King, then 26, was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led the effort.

January 26, 1956 – A bomb is thrown on the porch of Dr. King’s Montgomery home. Because she had been alerted to such a possibility, Coretta, with baby Yolanda and a friend, hurried to the back of the house when they heard a thud. They were not injured, but the house was damaged.

The Montgomery buses were integrated on Dec 20, 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a June decision of a U.S. District Court.

In February 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded, with King as its first president.

In September 1958, he was stabbed in the chest in New York City by a deranged woman.

In early 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King spent a month in India studying Gandhi’s techniques of non-violence. They were the guests of Prime Minister Nehru.

In January 1960, they moved to Atlanta where King became co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist with his father.

In February 1960, the lunch counter sit-ins begin to desegregate eating facilities in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and other parts of the South. King is arrested with others at an Atlanta sit-in. The charges are dropped for all jailed demonstrators except King, who is held on a traffic violation and transferred to state prison, where is is subsequently released on bond.

In 1961-1962, King was arrested several times for his part in demonstrations in Albany, GA, and Birmingham, AL. On May 20, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Birmingham’s segregation ordinances were unconstitutional. August 28, 1963 – at the great March on Washington, King delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to 250,000 civil rights marchers from all parts of the nation.

There have been notorious murders: Medgar Evers in Jackson, MS; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, MS; James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Viola Liuzzo in Selma, AL.

December 10, 1964 – Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

August 6, 1965 – President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act.

In 1966, King leads a Washington rally to protest the war in Vietnam.

July 1967, the Justice Department reports that more than 50% of all eligible black voters are registered in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.

A pattern of riots had punctuated these years. July 1967, Newark and Plainfield NJ, Detroit Michigan. 23 die in Newark and 43 in Detroit; hundreds were injured.

In 1968, sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, TN.

In March, King led 6,000 demonstrators through downtown Memphis in support of the strike.

April 3, 1968 – King delivers his last speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” in the Masonic Temple in Memphis.

On April 4, he is shot by a sniper and dies in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Memphis.

Much has been said and written about this man for whom a national holiday has been declared. I believe the holiday is appropriate and that he is justly honored and singled out.

First of all, he gave the Black people of this nation a sense of their own worth and dignity even amid the sad and awful oppressions not only during the centuries of slavery, but discriminations, bigotry, deprivations, lynchings, and injuries that followed emancipation. Speaking of the civil rights struggles, King said it best:

“I think the greatest victory of this period was something internal. The real victory was what this period did to the psyche of the Black man. We armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect. The greatness of this period was that we straightened our backs up. And a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” (WORDS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., p. 47)

So, in answer to the cynical charge that the votes in the House and Senate and the signature of the President were political expedients in deference to the voting power of Black people, it can be asserted, accurately, I believe, that had it not been for King and all the others in the civil rights movement, there would have been no substantial Black vote to warrant political consideration.

Then, too, as writer David Halberstam pointed out, King compelled white Christians of the South to confront their own beliefs. Halberstam said that this was so because the South was the most seriously religious of any area of the country. I had very little personal experience of the South, so I cannot pronounce on that point.

But I do believe that all over the land, King’s life and death forced many to look at the Black struggle in the light of religious beliefs. To persons in the Judeo-Christian streams of belief, there was difficulty in denying or obviously obscuring the reality that the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus claimed generosity, understanding, acceptance, and assistance to the poor, the disinherited, the persecuted. The ethical premise of all the religions was that every person was of worth and entitled to full dignity and all rights.

Again, King’s words penetrate: “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind that Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.” (WORDS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., p. 66)

One thing more, as engulfing as was King’s absorption in the struggles of his people, his vision was wider still. He spoke out against the Vietnam War. He was criticized for doing so by some who believed he was diluting the strength of the civil rights movement in this country.

He maintained his stand of non-violence, although some black leaders, particularly in the North, thought him more naïve. They believed more in the militancy of Malcolm X, who too was assassinated. And it seemed that King’s influence in the North was far weaker than in the South, which may be so.

But he maintained his values and beliefs. One knew where he stood. Gandhi’s influence on King was immense, although he never knew Gandhi in the flesh. But from his seminary days, he studied Gandhi’s life and words. King wrote,

“I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in a Molotov cocktail, but we do have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.” (WORDS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., p. 71)

The national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. is worthy to be celebrated. George Washington, is justly honored; he led the armies of the Revolution and wisely presided over the early days of the Republic. The Fourth of July recognizes the great document of our independence.

But a King holiday, at least in one important sense, represents the past and the future. Not only what he was, what he did, and what he valued, but also it can be a holiday for what we could be if we cherish and stand for not only a nation fair, free, and at peace, but a world fair, free, and at peace.

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