By Aaron C. Clemons
Image courtesy of Pixabay
As we begin a new semester, and stand in the wake of a tumultuous, divisive, and all around difficult year, for not only Saint Louis or the United States but for the entire world, it would be wise of us to remember the message propounded by the great civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There is a reason why it is important for us to reflect upon the ideas of this great twentieth century thinker and to contemplate how we, as members of a world and a society that is becoming ever more complex and diverse, can better apply King’s message in the future. It is simply that we would do well to remember that we are all inhabitants of this wonderful little blue planet and thus share a stake in its future and in the happiness of our fellow human beings. Specifically, in this time of racial, religious, and political tension, we could all stand to benefit from incorporating the values championed by Dr. King into our personal lives. These values of nonviolence, peace, equality, tolerance, courage in the face of injustice, persistence and love of our fellow man and woman continue to resonate as an excellent example of morality and are very much needed in today’s society. All Americans, specifically African Americans, owe a great deal to King and it is agreed upon that we have set him up among the pantheon of American heroes.
Let us begin our discourse on King by focusing on who he was, where he came from, how he developed his philosophy, why we honor him, and most importantly, how his message can be applied in today’s world.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second of three children born to Pastor Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. As a child, he attended segregated public schools and excelled in his studies, so much so that he was admitted to Morehouse College at the tender age of 15. Initially, King wanted to study medicine and law but Dr. Benjamin Hayes’ influence guided him to the life of a theologian. After graduating from Morehouse in 1948 with a B.A. in sociology, he subsequently attended and graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary with his Bachelor of Divinity, and Boston University with his PhD in systematic theology. It was around this time that he met his wife Coretta Scott King, with whom he would later have four children.
Around 1954, King became Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where he preached a version of Christianity focused on pacifism and love of one’s neighbor. However, at the beginning of his civil rights activism, King did not strictly adhere to the principles of nonviolence and was known to keep guns in his home for the purpose of self defense. This changed once he took on Bayard Rustin as his civil rights adviser. Rustin adhered to the Christian Pacifist tradition and had also been deeply influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and had imparted a great deal of his knowledge and ideals on to King. Unfortunately, Rustin’s role in King’s cabinet was greatly downplayed due to his sexual preferences and the intolerant attitude toward homosexuals at the time lead him to play a role in the background of the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, King, armed with the principles of nonviolence, began to expand his activism and in 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, King helped organize and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This changed King from a relatively unknown preacher into a national figure.
In 1957, following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which he organized black churches and more non-violent protests. These nonviolent protests, such as eating or sitting-in at segregated locations or protesting or sitting in public spaces, led to the arrests of many protesters, including King himself. These protests took place in Albany, Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and New York. These protests culminated with the March on Washington in 1963 where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Following the march, King continued to fight for both social and economic equality until 1968, when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, the day after he had delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech which seemed to foreshadow his death. King has been the recipient of numerous awards, both during his life time and posthumously, and is still remembered as one of the most important figures in American history.
King’s legacy of fighting for human rights, against injustice and in the face of adversity is a message that is still very much needed today. Whether the fight is economic, racial, sexual, religious or political, we all could stand to learn from King’s character, specifically his perseverance. In 2015, it would be wise for all of us to take a moment to empathize and sympathize with our fellow women and men, for us to contemplate how we can make a difference in the world and make it into a place where one could truly believe that no matter what the color of a person’s skin is, what god or gods they worship, or do not worship, whether they are gay or straight, male, female or transgendered, rich or poor, fat or skinny, ugly or beautiful, liberal or conservative, they would still be treated with dignity and granted their basic human rights. This day, unfortunately, has not yet come but if we continue to have hope and continue to fight for what is right, there might in fact be a day where this dream can become a reality.
(c) The Current 2014