Civil Rights

Opinion: Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s work and legacy

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his most famous speech on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, I was in Charleston, South Carolina preparing for my second year as a history teacher at segregated C. A. Brown high school. I first met the civil rights icon during the weekend of October 14-16, 1960 while serving as a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The last time I saw Dr. King was July 31, 1967, when we had lunch in the home of Septima Poinsett Clark who ran the Freedom School on Johns Island and taught Rosa Parks at Highlander School in Tennessee. The civil rights movement was truly a church-centered movement, and having grown up in a parsonage as the eldest son of a minister, the leaders of the movement were men and women who were like family to me. 


Remembering August 28, 1963: A hot summer’s day, a defining moment

It was the summer of 1963. Despite the heat and humidity in my home community in eastern North Carolina, life was as it had been for generations. Poor and totally segregated. There were very few job opportunities (except for domestic work and tobacco processing) and so within twenty-four hours after high school graduation, most black kids headed “north.”

I was the product of a middle-class family that enjoyed advantages compared to our neighbors. Mother was a teacher whose salary in the early years was about one-third less than her white counterpart. She was the granddaughter of a black slave woman and a white slave master. My father was a World War I veteran and a dentist. His humble beginnings were in Bermuda.

My parents’ experiences commanded community service. The segregated schools and public accommodations, the unwillingness of the white power structure to recognize African Americans as first class citizens, placed my community at the whim of the white establishment that was outraged when black people questioned the status quo.


The King memorial is finished, his life's work is not

We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because he was the conscience of our nation. He believed we could be a better place and a better people. I share that belief. My life’s work, in politics and as a pastor, are inspired by what Dr. King accomplished.

At the time of his death Dr. King had moved, intellectually and spiritually, from Civil Rights to Human Rights. I believe that movement symbolized his growing concern about the limitations of legalized civil rights. He was prescient in that way and  already knew what the rest of us would take longer to understand. Dr. King  had come to realize that changing the law would not automatically change the land. He realized that hearts and minds would take generations to alter.


"Bounced checks" and "insufficient funds"

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, January 11, 1944.

"It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

"As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.


Dr. King, the architect of a new America

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a middle class family. He could have chosen a life’s path of comfort and safety. Instead, he decided he was going to make a difference – even at the risk and ultimately the sacrifice of his own life.

The National Memorial in his honor, just a few steps from the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King articulated his Dream for America 48 years ago, is far more than a tribute to an individual. It is a monument to the millions of heroes, famous and unsung, of all races, backgrounds and faiths, who have participated in our great—and in many respects unfinished – civil rights movement. This is a monument to all these Americans, guided by and benefiting from the extraordinary leadership of Dr. King, who have been unwilling to accept the status quo.


A monument to hope, a call to action

Every monument in our nation's capital symbolizes something meaningful about our national character. Lincoln, presiding over the Reflecting Pool, reminds us of our commitment to overcoming division and guaranteeing equal protection under law. Jefferson, set against the Tidal Basin, symbolizes our steadfast belief in inalienable individual rights. The WWII memorial, sitting in the center of the Mall, depicts our triumph against fascism and our readiness to stand watch against tyranny and injustice.

Martin Luther King was neither a president nor a war hero. The namesake of our newest monument was, for most of his life, a humble preacher forced to live as an outsider in his own community. Yet, with his charismatic voice, visionary leadership, and indefatigable spirit, he symbolized what I believe is most central to our national character: hope.


Celebrating and remembering Dr. King's dream

My active entry into the civil rights movement came far later than I would have liked.

Ensconced in a Catholic University for women in the Midwest, the opportunity to march, to go to jail, to stand up for what was right and to risk harm was so very far away from my reality--if not from my yearnings at the time. Today, after joining demonstrations against the Vietnam War and going on at least four civil rights pilgrimages to Alabama, I wonder if I would have had the courage, determination and faith that young and old displayed during those historic times. I have the most profound respect and gratitude for all of them.

Apart from my prayers and identification with those who were there, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, his persona, his words, his teachings, his courage, his conviction and his commitment were more than an inspiration, they were a Call to Action for me, as for so many others.


The struggle continues for King's dream

Today, when the term “civil rights” appears to be an old-fashioned concept and the ideology of post-racialism penetrates the minds of many Americans, it is only proper to pause and recognize moments in history that remind us not only of how far we have come, but of how the fight for equality still continues.

I was born in 1936 and raised in Altamonte Springs, Fla. I remember clearly the day the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ended school segregation in our nation. I was beginning high school then and had to ride a bus for three hours every morning to get to the all-black Crooms Academy High School in Sanford, Fla. With this landmark case, we saw the start of a social transformation in our country.


Remembering Martin Luther King and the March for Jobs and Freedom

With the formal unveiling of the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King on August 28 – the anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the National Mall will house a memorial to a man who never held the nation’s highest office but brought it closer to its highest ideals.

Together with the national celebration of his birthday, the commemoration of the march and the quotation of his speeches, the new memorial ensures that Dr. King will be remembered. But will he be remembered rightly, not only as the subject of a monument but also as the leader of a movement for “jobs and freedom”?

Dr. King’s commitment to jobs and justice lasted a lifetime and cost him his life. During his last year on earth, Dr. King organized a “Poor People’s Campaign” for economic opportunity for all Americans. And he was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.


King memorial should bring renewed attention to call for continuous, positive action

It’s not often four words change a nation’s course. Yet that is precisely what happened on August 28, 1963. Standing in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln before 250,000 people who had marched to the Washington, D.C. mall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. galvanized the civil rights movement and inspired a generation by uttering the immortal words - “I have a dream.”

For many, Dr. King’s name evokes first and foremost his incredible oratory. But Dr. King was so much more than eloquent words with unparalleled persuasive force. 

Dr. King was our national conscience. He shook all Americans from their inertia and parochialism with a simple pronouncement that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He rightly chided us to be mindful of our “inescapable network of mutuality.” Despite being confronted with often-ruthless hatred, Dr. King remained a loving example of non-violence, thereby elevating spiritually all who toiled with him while winning unexpected converts to equality’s cause. And, perhaps most critically, by advocating decent wages, working conditions, and the right of all people to organize, Dr. King awoke America to the reality that true racial equality grows from economic advancement.