Having been born in the 50s, I grew up in the midst of what is known as the American Civil Rights Movement. A white child from a middle-class family in the Midwest, I didn’t have friends of color and certainly little experience with the struggles, hopes, or dreams of the African American community. It is unlikely anybody growing up in that time period went untouched by this movement even if it was just the images on the nightly news. I certainly wasn’t.
My first conscious awareness with black/white differences was during a family vacation to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, TN. After walking on the swinging rope bridge, I saw the restrooms with water fountains on the outside. They were labeled “white’ and “colored.” Being both thirsty and curious, I wanted to see what colored water looked like? Needless to say, I was stopped short of my goal once my parents saw my intent. We didn’t have the conversation we probably should have had; but that memory stayed with me. I also remember the news stories delivered by Walter Cronkite in his usual somber tones on the nightly news. The specifics are vague now but I’m pretty sure they included the Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat; the Greensboro, NC Woolworth’s Lunch Counter Sit-ins; and the infamous use of firehoses and dogs by Bull Connor’s in Birmingham, AL.
By my early teen years, I was well aware of the struggle for equality and equal opportunity at the core of this movement. As a Catholic youth, I followed the campaign and election of JFK eagerly. Civil rights were one of the core issues of his platform. I even got to shake his hand during a campaign event in St. Louis. Needless to say, he was one of my childhood heroes. But not the only one. I watched the various protests and marches, led by a Baptist preacher named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I saw folks of color linking arms with white folks singing “We Shall Overcome” while protesting unfair and discriminatory laws and regulations; asking for equality, in voting, jobs, housing and public transportation.
One of the reasons Dr. King became a hero to me was well expressed by the “The Complete Guide to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2020” article from the holidayvault.com website. It said: “One of the key beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. was that protests against the government should be peaceful in nature. He taught a policy of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance, hoping to bring people together, not tear them apart.” That struck a chord in my soul that remains and guides me to this very day.
Then in late August 1963 – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred. As reported by history.com website, more than 250,000 blacks and whites gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Over 3,000 members of the press were present. Some of my musical favorites performed to include Peter, Paul, and Mary who sang “If I Had a Hammer,” and Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Others were Bob Dylan himself, Joan Baez, Marian Anderson, and Mahalia Jackson. There were many speakers and speeches that day; yet, to the average American the most memorial speech given was by Dr. King with his “I Have a Dream Speech”. The full speech is available on the internet, but the following passages are ones I found of greatest interest to me:
·“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
·“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."”
·“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
·“When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, “We are free at last."”
JFK was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. After his death, Congress enacted many of his proposals including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, TN. He was only 39 years of age. The day before his death, he delivered his last sermon remembered as the “I’ve been to the mountain top” sermon. Some say it was his foreknowledge of pending death. Riots broke out all over America following Dr. King’s death. This would likely have saddened him.
President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday in 1983. It took 3 years from original proposal until it was made official and even then, it wasn’t observed until three years later in 1986. It’s always observed the third Monday of January so that it’s near Dr. King’s birthday which is on the 15th of the month. Although most private businesses remain open, public schools and government offices close for the long three-day weekend. Many special events take place on this holiday. Church services are held. Television specials are aired. Current and past Civil Rights leaders give speeches. Dr. King’s own words are recited at public events. More recently, folks spend time volunteering to help those less fortunate in memory of Dr. King over this holiday weekend. If nothing else, perhaps just remembering Dr. King’s life and cause – finding the meaning of equality for yourself is a worthy activity on January 20th, 2020. I’ll leave you with these words from Dr. King: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”