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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical :

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. BIRTHDAY

by Archie P. McDonald
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Where were you on April 4, 1968, when news of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. reached you? Having dinner, perhaps, as I was, and watching TV, when the screen showed the ominous “Special Report” standby signaling that some event had occurred that might alter our lives. This one did. Dr. King had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee, while leaning on the balcony of his motel and talking to a friend. We learned later that he had been shot by James Earl Ray, a man with a substantial criminal record.

Where were you when you first heard anything about Dr. King? That probably occurred in the mid-1950s. Shortly after Dr. King accepted the call of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in September 1954, Rosa Parks decided her tired feet needn’t carry her to the back of the bus. Parks’ arrest for violating the city’s segregation ordinance launched the black community’s quest for recognition of their civil rights.

Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernethy called for a one-day boycott of the bus line, a non-violent way to protest injustice shown toward blacks over many years, but the boycott lasted 382 days. Their Montgomery Improvement Association eventually became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and with the expansion their forum assumed national proportions.

Dr. King’s philosophy of protest featured non-violence on the part of the protesters, but violence often accompanied their efforts. He moved from city to city to promote voting registration, fair housing practices, improved working conditions and pay in industries that employed large numbers of black Americans, and above all, recognition of dignity for every citizen. And Dr. King got arrested, most notably in 1960 during the presidential campaign, and was sentenced to several months on a county work farm for a traffic violation. Many feared this would turn out to be a “death sentence,” but a call from Robert F. Kennedy produced his release. Arrested again in Birmingham in 1963, he spent eight days in jail while supporters outside sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Then there was the rally in Washington and the “I Have A Dream” speech, a high example of American oratory, in which he quoted the spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I am free at last.” On April 3, the eve of his death, he delivered an equally important, and poignant, speech at the Masonic Temple in Memphis; he said that he had been to the mountain top, and “I may not get there with you, but ‘mine eyes have seen the glory,’” and he urged everyone to continue to the Promised Land.

King preached non-violence, instead asking Americans to look to their conscience and live by the Golden Rule. But he died violently, as had John F. Kennedy, as would Robert F. Kennedy, and as Governor George Wallace nearly would die, victims to man’s inhumanity. On the day King died, Robert Kennedy quieted a potentially violent crowd in Detroit, but anger, frustration, and fear led to outbreaks in other cities.

The next evening there was an organizational meeting of the King’s Men, led by SFA basketball player Harvey Rayson, in Nacogdoches. Some wanted to take to the streets even right then, but history teacher Bill Brophy turned the scene into a positive one: he pulled out a $5 bill, all he had, and said, “Instead, why don’t we start a scholarship fund in Dr. King’s honor,” and so we passed the hat and symbolically passed on the real legacy of Dr. King.

In 1983, Congress made the third Monday in January, the nearest to Dr. King’s actual birth date of January 15, 1929, a national holiday; many states and territories had done so already. The first national observance began in 1986. And the dream goes on. And many still strive to overcome, someday, when Americans will be judged by the “content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.”
© Archie P. McDonald
All Things Historical
January 7, 2008 column
A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
(The East Texas Historical Association provides this column as a public service. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas. )
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