How do you confront ideologies of hate and intolerance?
Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for compassion.
In an era when white supremacists are once again emboldened and marching, uncovered, to defend the symbols of the United States' slaving past, a new monument has been unveiled in Atlanta, Georgia: an eight-foot bronze statue of the legendary civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This, just two weeks after counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was murdered at a gathering of racists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Dr. King now stands right outside the Georgia State Capitol, visible to drivers on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The replica of the historic figure gazes northeast in the direction of his boyhood home and Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father served as pastors, and where he is buried. It joins figures from Georgia's Confederate and segregationist past: alleged Ku Klux Klan leader, General John Brown Gordon, and U.S. Sen. Richard Russell, one of the staunchest opponents of the civil rights legislation King fought for and lost his life to win.
The statue's unveiling marks the 54th anniversary of Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered before 250,000 supporters on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, on 28 August 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin in collaboration with civil rights, labor, and religious leaders as well as the Kennedy Administration, the march drew attention the injustices black Americans still faced 100 years, to the day, after President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation.
I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal."
For Dr. King, it was a long road from rural Georgia to the national platform from which he addressed the nation that day. As a child, he attended segregated public schools before studying at Morehouse College, then Boston University where he met his future wife, Coretta Scott, who he married in 1953. When King finished his degree, the couple moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and began to raise their family.
In the 1950's, however, Montgomery was a dangerous place to be black. The city was in the throes of intense civil rights disputes, and white supremacists daily threatened the safety of black individuals. Then, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand by refusing to get up and give her seat to a white person on a crowded city bus. She was immediately arrested, finger printed, and jailed. In response, Montgomery's black community staged a bus boycott. They resolved to walk or share rides to worship and work until the whites in felt the pain in their purse: a form of economic protest. This was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement that had been smoldering for decades. They turned to Reverend King to lead.
White backlash to the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott becaome brutally violent. No one was spared, not children, youth, women, or the elderly. But protesters followed King's example; they reacted with nonviolence. Their peaceful resistance grew louder and louder until it drew national attention. Their cry for justice was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, who decided, in a landmark 1956 ruling, that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.
Following the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King and other black leaders founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As its president, King lectured and wrote about nonviolent protest and civil rights, and brought his strategy to other civil rights flashpoints, like Birmingham and Selma. That's also when King relocated to Atlanta to become a co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. And when he teamed up with five other black civil rights advocates to organize the Great March on Washington. King and A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), James Farmer (Congress of Racial Equality), John Lewis (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Roy Wilkins (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and Whitney Young (National Urban League) would become known as the Big Six.
“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”
Each of the Big Six, along with their white counterparts, stood tall at the podium on 28 August 1963. But it is Dr. King's speech that is most remembered. In it, he calls for an end to racism in the United States and civil and economic rights for all. He references the Emancipation Proclamation, observing that "one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free." He describes his dream of freedom and equality arising from the land of slavery and hatred.
But despite notable advances in US civil society in the 54 years since Dr. King moved us with his famous words, the occasion did not mark the end of the racist violence that has plagued the nation of his birthright for centuries, even before it was the United States.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated by the same hate he worked so long and so hard to eliminate. It happened in Memphis, Tennessee. He had traveled there to support African American sanitation workers in their struggle to obtain a living wage. Due to his prominence in the Civil Rights Movement, King was by then receiving frequent death threats. He knew which way things were going; he told his wife Coretta, after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, "This is what is going to happen to me." But he would not let the threat of violent death stop him.
King believed what he taught -- that even murder could not halt the struggle for equal rights -- right up until the end.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for a more equitable United States. In 1983, a national holiday was begun in his name, and numerous monuments have been erected to honor his legacy, including the one recently unveiled in Atlanta. He is most significantly remembered, however, for paving the road toward justice. He lives in the hearts and minds of all those who traverse that ribbon of highway as they stand up to white supremacist ideologies and fight for the right to live in a diverse society free of intolerance. In their efforts, King's contributions will never be forgotten. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Tell us in the comments below and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on this blog.