By Chaitram Aklu
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year is celebrated on Monday January 18. In spite of being a federal holiday since 1986 it was only last year, 2020, it was observed in all 50 states. It took 20 years for Congress to pass the resolution and even after Congress’ approval several states still refused to adopt it as a holiday. South Carolina for example became the 50th and last state to make it a paid holiday last year.
Dr. King Jr. whose birth home, church, research center, museum, and tomb are all located on one block in Atlanta, Georgia took that name on July 23, 1957, 28 years after he was born with the given name Michael King Jr.
Being born into a well off family did not screen him from the realities of what awaited him. He had his first reality check at age six when the father of his white play buddy friend told him that the friendship was over. He was hurt. They had to attend segregated schools. Not many years later he got his second reality check. When his father (who was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church) took him to the store to buy a pair of shoes, they were told to enter through the back of the store to be served.
Even when he entered Morehouse College at age fifteen, he was haunted by these events. He studied a variety of disciplines not sure if he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
He decided to explore for himself – to immerse himself in the life of ordinary people to see how life was outside of his family life. He worked in Atlanta’s rail yards and bus stations. He wanted to see how the ordinary poor unskilled worker – both black and white lived. There he saw the humiliation and indignities black workers faced while doing the same work as whites but who were paid less and treated with less respect.
Later he traveled to Connecticut where he worked in tobacco fields doing hard manual work but where there was no segregation and black workers were treated with more respect, paid a little better, and he could go anywhere to any restaurant, store, movie theater without having to observe the rules of segregation.
It was these experiences that helped him develop a quality we see lacking at the highest level today – empathy. It helped him make the decision to stay the course and complete his studies at Crozier Theological Seminary, in Pennsylvania.
Yet when faced with the leadership role placed on him to be the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Park’s arrest, he had doubts when he and his family became the direct target of violent white retaliation. He was just about ready to quit for the sake of his himself, children and wife and the good life he knew he could be enjoying. He meditated hard and said he heard the lord telling him: “Martin Luther, stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I shall be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
Even when his house was firebombed later he had doubts but regained his courage and intensified his work to end injustice and discrimination and grew stronger in his resolve.
With the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King became a national figure and found that he was being called everywhere. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLP) in February 1957 and resigned the position of pastor to serve nationally.
On September 20, 1958, while Dr. King Jr. was signing his first book, Strides Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story at the Blumstein’s Department Store at 230 West 125th Street, and was stabbed in the chest with a seven inch letter opener by Izola Ware Curry a deranged black woman, King sympathized and empathized with her condition and requested that she be given the treatment she needed. She was committed to a mental institution.
King then decided to travel to India the following year to aid in his recuperation and fortify his non-violent beliefs which he had adopted first by studying Henry David Thoreau and then the practices of Mahatma Gandhi. He and his entourage visited Gandhi’s grave on February 11, 1959. In July 1959 he wrote “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Gunar Jahn Chairman of the Nobel Committee said on December 10, 1964 in presenting the Nobel Peace Prize to King: “Today we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”
This truth ran through on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before he was assassinated, when King made one of his greatest speeches Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. Many of his allies and supporters tried to distance themselves from his work. They failed to see that he supported equality but opposed the Vietnam.
According to Bishop Desmond Tutu “People with Ubuntu are approachable and welcoming: their attitude is kindly and well-disposed; they are not threatened by the goodness in others because their own esteem and self-worth is generated by knowing they belong to a greater whole.”
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and on his tomb is inscribed his famous words: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
He has received Ubuntu – the highest praise.
The views expressed in these articles are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.