He gave hope, strength and direction to a nation of black Americans, but what did he do for me? Does the message of an African American civil rights leader have any bearing on the life of a middle-aged Caucasian female almost forty years after his death? You bet it does!
Martin Luther King Jr.’s history is fraught with strife and unrest. For a man, dedicated to a nonviolent way of life, violence surely followed his every footstep. He was arrested repeatedly, assaulted more than once, and his home was bombed as a result of his public activities. In the end, only thirty-nine years old, he was assassinated. But his dream, his message did not die with him.
Dr. King was an angry man. His rage becomes apparent in his passionate speeches. His voice resonated with emotion and his listeners responded with enthusiasm and zeal. He did not waste his anger on destructiveness, but channeled it effectively and precisely toward his chosen purpose. Did he follow a calling? Or did he once plan a different kind of life, quieter perhaps, but became caught up in the events of his time? We may never know, but from the moment he stepped up in support of Rosa Parks and organized the Montgomery bus boycott, he became a public figure.
Dr. King’s anger fueled a wave of civil disobedience, which swept across America like wildfire. It provided focus for the growing outrage of disenfranchised and oppressed African Americans, who chafed under persistent Jim Crow laws and blatant racism. Dr. King was good for America, his leadership timely and desperately needed. His life and work forced America to confront its demons, his death to admit its shame.
There were white folks among King’s followers, men and women who believed in his message. Many joined him on protest marches, shared his ideas and listened to his speeches. King’s insistence on nonviolence made it possible for whites to embrace his cause. Communion was better than conflict, equality better than discrimination, tolerance better than strife.
Dr. King became the driving force behind a powerful civil rights movement and he gave courage and hope to African American people. That within itself is enough for one man in one lifetime. And yet, he did more. With his philosophy, he gave whites an opportunity for redemption and extended to all races the promise of acceptance and compassion. And he left one more legacy, so important to the present time.
Tireless, he never ceased to confront and expose. When he saw a wrong, he addressed it. And he continued to address it with an in-your-face doggedness, which demands my ultimate respect. Never deterred by disappointments, he ceaselessly labored to craft a better America. By his persistence, he taught us that nonviolence is not complacency and that giving up is never an option.
Surely, Dr. King and the brave men and women who stood against injustice had more than enough reasons to yield and surrender. They faced police violence and bloodshed, and increased harassment publicly and in the workplace followed the peaceful demonstrations. Yet, with determination, they confronted, educated and enlightened a reluctant and often resentful public. Non-compliant, non-violent, non-obedient and most of all non-complacent. And that is the challenge of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy: to persistently and congenially confront injustice, inequality, and moral and social wrongs.
As a woman, I embrace this challenge. As an American, I pick up the torch and raise it. May it shine into the darkness with the promise of one man’s dream and a nation’s future. And may we never forget to seek out that light!
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