MLK Jr: Struggle and destiny

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MLK Jr: Struggle and destiny

Wayne Campbell

Monday, January 18, 2021

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I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. — Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a special individual. He came unto the world scene at a time when his presence and words of reassurance and encouragement were needed the most. One can only imagine living in that period of history when one's skin colour was the marker by which one was judged. Indeed, many of us have taken for granted King's 'I have a dream' speech.

We have all seen the black and white video footage of Dr King addressing huge crowds all over the United States of America. Dr King was eloquent as he was fearless when he spoke about the multiplicity of injustices towards African Americans in a racially divided United States of America.

Regrettably, 58 years after King's iconic speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the United States of America is still beset by many of the same issues which King spoke about in August 1963.

The issues then and now have a common thread of inequality, racial divisiveness, income inequality, and the voting rights of blacks. While legislative changes have brought some semblance of justice and equal rights to African Americans, it is clear that legislation cannot change the hearts and thought processes of those who are racists; and, therefore, sooner rather than later their true colours emerge.

The United States of America continues to struggle with racism and discrimination based on skin colour. The recent insurrection on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 saw images of Confederate flags on display in the Congress, and of rowdy, white supremacists and racists overtaking the Congress for a few hours. This clearly underscores that racism and prejuidce are alive and well in the US, as many of the rioters share a belief of entitlement, whether based on sex, political persuasion, or skin colour.

The entire world watched in total disbelief and awe as the United States of America — which prided herself as the bastion of democracy, peaceful elections, and transition of governments — was rocked to its core as the white militia carried out their actions with the hope of overturning the 2020 presidential election results. As a result, President Donald Trump became the first president to be impeached twice.

Discrimination is not, however, unique to the United States of America; in Jamaica we have our own issues of colourism to address as those with a lighter skin hue are often given a pass. There are obvious similarities between both countries, as a history of slavery has shaped the development of both societies.

According to History.com, Dr King's speech remains one of the most-celebrated speeches in history. Weaving in references to the country's founding fathers and the Bible, King used widespread themes to represent the struggles of African Americans. He went on to reimagine and refashion a narrative in which equality for all underpinned the United States of America. The expressive speech was immediately recognised as a highlight of the successful protest and has endured as one of the signature moments of the civil rights movement.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr's message of non-violence, human rights, hope, and civil engagement is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States of America. He became a target for white supremacists, who firebombed his family home. But he was determined to rise above those human-made ideologies, which he did in order to achieve his purpose and mission.

Early life

Martin Luther King Jr was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second child of Martin Luther King Sr, a pastor, and Alberta Williams King, a former schoolteacher. Along with his older sister Christine and younger brother Alfred Daniel Williams, he grew up in the city's Sweet Auburn neighbourhood, then home to some of the most prominent and well-to-do African Americans in the country.

A gifted student, King attended segregated public schools and at the age of 15 he was admitted to Morehouse College from which he graduated with a degree in sociology. Morehouse College was also the alma mater of both his father and maternal grandfather, who had studied medicine and law. Even though he had no intention to follow in his father's footsteps by joining the ministry, King changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse's President Dr Benjamin Mays, an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality. After graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree, won a prestigious fellowship, and was elected president of his predominantly white senior class. Later he enrolled in a graduate programme at Boston University, completing his coursework in 1953 and earning a doctorate in systematic theology two years later. While in Boston he met Coretta Scott, a young singer from Alabama.

Advocacy and activism

King had been a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. He sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest. He was the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the August 28, 1963 march on Washington. He helped bring about such landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

King's work and struggle continued throughout the 1960s. On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march planned from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, turned violent as police with night sticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however, the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen demonstrators were hospitalised in a day that would be called Bloody Sunday.

On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and they then turned back. Alabama Governor George Wallace continued to try to prevent another march until President Lyndon B Johnson pledged his support and ordered US Army troops and the Alabama National Guard to protect the protestors. On March 21, approximately 2,000 people began a march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 25 the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the state capitol, where King delivered a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Act.

King's activism and hard work propelled him to earn the “Man of the Year” title by Time magazine, and in 1964 he became, at the time, the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr King was a trailblazer, a man with a passion to see others succeed. He was very empathetic and was able to connect with the masses of the people.

Unfortunately, Dr King's life was cut short on the evening of April 4, 1968. He was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where King had travelled to support a sanitation workers' strike. Even in his death King's ideology continues to inspire younger generations of human rights advocates who continue his work of social justice and equal rights for all, regardless of skin colour or social class.

Martin Luther King Jr Day is observed the third Monday in January.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or waykam@yahoo.com, @WayneCamo.


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