And reminding ourselves what we must do to fulfill his dream
Last Wednesday, April 4, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When I first sat down to contemplate this column, I envisioned it to be a personal reflection of what Dr. King meant, and still means to me today.
In large part, the column will still fulfill those intentions. However, I quickly realized that out of respect for Dr. King’s legacy, it must be more than that, something that I will address in my concluding remarks.
I was one month shy of my ninth birthday when Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. A few years later, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke before two-thousand people inside New York City’s Riverside Church and thousands more who listened outside over loudspeakers.
In this address, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” Dr. King proclaimed:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Many scholars, activists, and historians agree that with this speech, Dr. King essentially signed his own death warrant. Ten days later, Dr. King revisited the themes he explored in “Beyond Vietnam” at Stanford University (where the majority of his papers are archived today) and later that April during an address here at the University of Minnesota.
Following his visit to the Twin Cities, a Minneapolis Spokesman editorial titled “Tie up with Vietnam dissent will harm Civil Rights Movement,” suggested that Dr. King’s attempt to coalesce the movement with his anti-war views and the issue of widespread economic inequality “was idealistic but not good strategy.”
The Minneapolis Tribune expressed similar sentiments. Then, exactly one year to the day of the Riverside Church speech, Dr. King was taken from us. I was 13 years old.
As a high school student a couple of years later, I was taking a public speaking course and chose to speak about the “I Have a Dream,” speech for a class project.
I discovered at that time that I already knew a lot about the speech, but not much about the man who many consider the greatest American in the history of this nation. As I prepared for my own speech, I expeditiously began to learn more about Dr. King, not the least of which included the provocative Riverside speech and the last year of his life.
Among the things that immediately struck me were: Dr. King’s unselfish and unyielding desire to make life better for all people; the time he had to sacrifice away from his family; and his fearlessness to do what was right in spite of the perpetual threat of death.
I was also inspired by his exceptional command of the English language, coupled with his ability to effectively meld the sacred pulpit into the arena of social justice. While others may have accomplished such a feat, Dr. King serves as America’s clarion standard in this regard.
Moved by Dr. King’s example, I have spent my entire 40-year professional career in the nonprofit industry, the last decade at one of this country’s 1,000 Community Action agencies, which were born out of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
When Johnson considered forsaking this endeavor in its early years, it was Dr. King (along with Robert F. Kennedy) who refused to allow the president to walk away from the commitment he made to the American people.
Today, Community Action agencies serve more than 16 million people each year. And, as a pastor myself for nearly 14 years, I am reminded of Dr. King’s indelible impact on our world every single day of my life.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church and pay my respects to Dr. King at his final resting place in his native Atlanta. I’ve stood on the balcony outside of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel’s National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, only able to ask, “Why?”
It seems that humans often revere our heroes more in death than in life. Dr. King is no doubt a giant in death, but he was a giant in life as well. What is of paramount importance 50 years later — is not simply recognizing all of the things that Dr. King did for America and the world — but that there are current forces that seek to undermine, dismantle, and reverse the progress of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the latest issue of Time Magazine, Eddie Glaude, Jr., Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University cites Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and March for Our Lives as recent movements signaling a possible sea change in our political landscape.
Dr. Glaude also makes reference to the latter years of Dr. King’s life, when he was so dismayed at the evil he saw perpetrated by human beings against other human beings; he fell into a deep depression even struggling on at least one occasion to get out of bed.
However, as Dr. Glaude poignantly notes, “We have a chance, once again, to make real the promises of our democracy. It will require us to honestly confront who we are. No myths. No fables. Evil sent King to his bed, but he got up and kept fighting. We must do the same.”
We owe that much to ourselves and our children. We owe that to Dr. King.
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104