The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated 50 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee while trying to assist striking sanitation workers in their plight for a sliver of respect. I suspect I’m not telling any of you anything new. Dr. King has millions of words written about him and millions more spoken over the last 50 years–likely as many as any other human.
The sanitation workers were on strike for more pay, but also that respect. They were not allowed to get inside the cab of the truck when storms hit and could be fired for even seeking shelter inside the receptacle of the truck where the trash was collected. MLK was there to apply his stock and trade of organizing nonviolent protest to get wide-spread attention focused on the workers’ problems, thus putting pressure on the principals to change.
That was April 4, 1968. King had been working in a similar manner since helping organize and execute the 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to cede her seat on a city bus, beginning December 2, 1955. Not only did the event make Ms. Parks an American icon, it was the country’s first glimpse of the 26-year-old pastor who would go on to lead the way for civil rights legislation resulting in annulling segregation and voting discrimination as a matter of law.
Dr. King studied the doctrines of nonviolent protest as a solution to civil inequities through the teachings of Gandhi. Gandhi got his ideas from an American, Henry David Thoreau and a Russian, Leo Tolstoy. In 1906, Thoreau wrote of civil disobedience and his refusal to support war from his hut on Walden Pond, and Tolstoy wrote an essay about the spirit of nonviolence stating, “real courage of humanity consists in not returning a kick for a kick.” There, Gandhi got the inspiration to help India expel the British with his newfound, peaceful principles.
King took his cue from Gandhi and was driven to apply the “power of love to overcome injustice.” It took over a year, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended with a Supreme Court decision that segregation was illegal on public transportation. At the height of the boycott, King’s house was firebombed. His family was home. After making sure they were unharmed, King went to the people and spoke: “if you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them.” Not one shot was fired by the protesters. He lived by and advocated that thought to tens of thousands of followers over the next 12 years before a rifle shot tore through his neck, fatally injuring the spiritual leader of a movement that effected more change in U.S. civil rights policy than the previous 350 years.
Paired with MLK being smitten with Gandhi’s teachings and successes regarding peaceful protest, was the fact that in the mid 1950s media was at the cusp of a massive game changer–television. Gandhi’s protests got widespread attention, but Gandhi’s recognition would turn out to be peanuts when compared with what King understood intuitively from the beginning–if the media got involved, people who would otherwise have no idea about the injustice being perpetrated on black southerners would get a jolting, real time look at what was going on in the old Confederacy. The country got nightly news film of dogs and firehoses being used by police on peacefully protesting children in 1963 and of still more police in 1965 beating peaceful marchers senseless on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.
In early 1956, King and other boycott leaders were indicted for violating a 1921 law that forbade interfering with a lawful business. The leaders did not wait to be arrested, they turned themselves in and spent two weeks in jail. This episode flooded tons of attention on the cause and the movement’s young, national leader. This would be a recurring scene throughout the campaign. In 1963 King and his lieutenant, Ralph Abernathy, spent time in Birmingham, Alabama’s jail. During the incarceration, King wrote his iconic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that rallied young blacks to join the cause en masse.
On a personal note, my life crossed paths with Dr. King and the movement when the leaders decided to organize mostly white, northern college students to come south and engage in the work of voter registration and civil education. A few students from Stanford and Yale came in the summer of 1963 and were met with white resistance and deemed “outside agitators” while operating a mock election to determine if black citizens would vote if given the chance. The success of 1963 led to more students coming to southern cities in 1964 to do the work in earnest, and simply to lure media attention to accompany them. Tragically, three Freedom Workers lost their lives during that summer at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members who feared and hated the intrusion and exposure. The success was the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Freedom Worker programs were repeated in 1965, when I became involved, and the work and the media exposure culminated in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965–finally addressing the last of the Jim Crow laws keeping black citizens out of the voting booths.
The fight and the prize moved to northern cities after segregation and voting blocks were eliminated. Dr. King kept firm on his principles of non-violence but began to have challenges from militant black groups that were becoming impatient with the plodding progress. After Rev. King was murdered, his cause continued, but lost followers to more violent activity.
This would have saddened him. He was not a saint, simply a man who found his calling and used his entire life in the service of others.