We March Again Today to Honor Dr. King

On this day each year we celebrate the life and considerable contributions to the American society of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Next year it will be 50 years that we lost this great American pastor, civil rights leader, thought leader, and conscience of the nation.

This year as we celebrate his life and contributions we also think about what he might be preaching in a Sunday sermon, or speaking about in the halls of power, about the state of racial relations.

Could he have imagined the day when an African-American could serve eight years as President of these United States of America? I think so.

Could have imagined the frequent “showdowns” between people of color and police officers? Yes, but judging by his calls for nonviolent protest and for peace and harmony for the nation, he would be greatly disappointed that in some instances we have not moved far from the 1960s…his prime years as the nation’s leading civil rights advocate.

As we await the ceremonies — and protests — scheduled for January 20th in the nation’s capital, I think back to a day in 1963 (August 28) when Dr. King and the era’s civil rights leadership called for a public demonstration and 250,000 people showed up, including many white citizens showing their support.

On the great mall, those gathered heard the “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They also heard the voices of prominent entertainers, as we are hearing today, in support of the appeal for justice and harmony. (Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Bob Dylan, now a Nobel Laureate, and Joan Baez, among them).

“Now is the time,” Dr. King proclaimed. Time to make justice reality for all of God’s children. Time to make real the promises of democracy. Time to rise to the solid rock of brotherhood (out of the quicksands of racial injustice).

Across the nation today tens of thousands marched again, in Dr. King’s memory and both mourn his loss and celebrate his life.

May we keep in mind the power of the People when they march for righteous reasons. When they protest against injustice.  In March 1965, peaceful marchers going from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, were beaten by troopers and police.

The young civil rights leader and mentee and colleague of Dr.King, John Lewis, now a distinguished Member of the U.S. Congress, among them, still weak from his beating. A week later President Lyndon Johnson announces that his Civil Rights bill is on the way to the Congress. And Federal troops were in Alabama to protect the marchers this time — and 1,000+ clergy flocked to Selma to join the march. And as we said, the courageous young Lewis was back on his feet after his beating by troopers and marching with his brothers and sisters in the call for voting rights..

Today in Miami, Florida, Congressman Lewis delivered a powerful reminiscence of the day he was clubbed on the bridge over the small river at the start of the first march from Selma.  He is among those still among us from the early days of the civil rights movement (along with the Reverend Jesse Jackson.)

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The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1960, his son, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined him as co-pastor. This was his important home pulpit as he traveled the nation and the world (receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts) speaking truth to power.

Congressman John Lewis, representing the great city of Atlanta in the U.S. House of Representatives for many years now, is today a member of that historic church.  He remains a greatly-respected civil rights icon. And he is as outspoken today as he was as a teenager in the Deep South questioning the racism of the day.

Love is better than hate was his important message for us today.

Today – We Honor Dr. King – His Courage, and Contributions to Our Nation

by Hank Boerner

Today we celebrate the birthday of a great American, a man who somewhat reluctantly became a “street warrior” battling for fairness, social justice and equality for the African-American community. And for all Americans, yesterday and today and into our future as a People.

While still a young minister (still in his 30′s), in his early pastoral years The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a fierce advocate for “Negro” rights. As he campaigned, Dr. King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama for joining the civil protests underway in the early 1960s.

There in the jail cell, on scraps of paper he hid from his jailers Dr. King answered his critics, including fellow clergy, citing important Biblical precedent, important milestones and events in American history, and the emergence of new nations from former colonies in Africa and Asia. Old colonial empires were shattering.

But in the USA the “southern empire” of the post-Civil War era was mostly still intact; this nation had its own version of the South African system of Apartheid, including structured denial of voting rights for blacks and various Jim Crow practices. One day, he writes in the letter, the south will recognize its real heroes.

Dr. King writes: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Inspiring words!

The young church leader appeals for help in this letter; this document was released and widely read over time. Soon, he would have a much larger stage for his soaring commentary — a few months later on August 28, 1963 he mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and faced perhaps up to a quarter-million people — white, black, brown — and they awaited his words…”I Have A Dream” is still his best-known work.

But when you read this letter from inside a jail cell once again (or for the first time), see if the words don’t ring true for you across a half-century.

Born to a middle-class family, educated at Morehouse College and then in Boston at grad school (Boston University 1953, Ph.D.). Dr. King was not expected to be in the streets heading marches…he was born to lead from the pulpit, and the “higher pulpit” at that…in a big city church, for example, perhaps there in Atlanta where his father served as pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Which he later joined as co-pastor.)

Instead, early in 1963 (only a few years into his ministry) he finds himself sitting in an Alabama jail cell pleading for help, and calm, and social justice. He could not count on the Kennedy Administration for much help at the time – President John Kennedy and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy were then reluctant to anger the long-tenured southern senators and congressmen who ruled Capitol Hill. The Kennedy’s needed their support to win re-election in November 1964. And so we could say that the brothers were then also reluctant warriors to the civil rights struggle emerging in the 1960s.

Shortly after writing his epistle, Dr. King would be out of jail and eulogizing the four little African-American girls killed in a cowardly, racist bomb blast at their church in Birmingham…at least one of them a friend of another little girl, Condoleezza Rice, who rose to be our Secretary of State. (The bombing was on September 15, 1963.)

Dr. King continued to speak out and to be the national voice (and conscience) of civil rights activism, and the leader who could best appeal to the nation’s conscience, north and south, east and west; white and black.   He would be awarded the Nobel Prize for his non-violence campaigning in December 1964.

But then, in a short while — in June 1968 – US Senator Robert Kennedy would be announcing the slaying of Dr. King (in Memphis) to a crowd of African-Americans…and a dramatic change would occur in Senator Kennedy’s public attitudes toward civil rights. He would become a man with a mission that clearly included addressing the wrongs of racism.

And not long after that, sad to recall, it would be his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his late brother, Bobby, the presidential candidate (murdered in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968, as he won the California Democratic Party primary).   1968 – that was a terrible year – two leaders slain within months of each other.

But today there is a prayer for all of us as a People in the concluding words from that jail cell letter five decades ago.  Dr. King said, “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” May that day be!

On this day that celebrates this brave, intelligent civil rights and religious leader, my thoughts go back to 1963 and that cold jail cell in Birmingham and I re-read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..  (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968)

I think about his personal and professional struggles when we celebrate his birthday, today, every year.  A  deserved honor, in my opinion.

He helped move this nation forward in many, many ways, during his very short life on Earth. Imagine if he had lived his biblical four score-plus years!  We are in his debt as a nation and People.

Note: This was in part derived from a commentary I authored in December 2007