Guest Editorial: Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“History is not what you think. It is what you remember. All other history defeats itself.” – Plutarch

During the month of January each year, the nation and the world remembers and celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., a renowned civil rights activist and tireless advocate, a humanitarian, minister, an astute academic scholar, and a husband and father.

His grandfather and father began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the renowned Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Dr. King served as co-pastor. Dr. King attended segregated public schools in Georgia and began enrolled at Morehouse College at the age of 15 without formally graduating from high school.   He received his B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, a distinguished institution for African American male students from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. It was at Morehouse that he met great social activists, prolific thinkers, astute theologians, exceptional educators, who became his mentors.

Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.

Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College, served as his spiritual mentor. Dr. Mays always urged Morehouse men to become “sensitive to the wrongs the sufferings and the injustices of society’ and to “accept responsibility for correcting these ills.”  Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who is considered the architect of the college’s reputation for excellence, proved to be an incomparable inspiration to King. As a distinguished Atlanta educator, he was an example of “rising above adversity.”  Born in Epworth, S. C. to former slaves, Hezekiah and Louvenia Carter, Dr. Mays, eventually obtained several advanced degrees and eventually became President of Morehouse College. As President, Dr. Mays delivered weekly addresses in the College’s chapel services, a long-standing tradition that is continued to this date.

According to Dr. King, his ministerial aspirations were deeply influenced by Dr. Mays and other outstanding professors who also shaped the man who would one day become one of the world’s most renowned civil and human rights non-violent leaders. At Morehouse, he was introduced to the problem of segregation, inspired to think beyond his fundamental instruction regarding the Bible and theology. In a 1950 interview, Dr. King stated that, “I could see in their lives the ideal of what I wanted a minister to be.”  The introduction and influence of this incredible instruction led Dr. King to abandon his pursuit of law and medicine and, instead, enter the ministry.

Dr. Mays introduced him to the Indian social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and his method of non-violent protest. By the time, he completed his final year at Morehouse College, it was evident that he had transformed into the leader he was destined to become, writing in the college newspaper, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough – intelligence and character – that is the goal of true education.” After graduating from Morehouse College, Dr. King enrolled in the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class. Dr. King subsequently was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for his doctorate in 1953 and receiving his degree in 1955.

In 1954, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Black and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Black leader of the first rank.

In 1957, he received his honorary doctorate degree from Morehouse College and was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning Civil Rights movement in 1957. The ideals for this organization, he took from Christianity, its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action. Meanwhile, he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. During these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, which caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a “coalition of conscience” and inspiring his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a manifesto of the Black revolution. This time proved to be his most prolific time of service and accomplishments during which he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of black voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, “l Have a Dream”, he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks, but also a world figure.

At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.

On April 4, 1968, 54 years ago, a weary and exhausted Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed a capacity crowd of protest marchers in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city on the eve of his assassination. Despite storm warnings, thousands of people had come to hear him speak and despite other warnings of death threats on his life, he had come to rehearse the old dream that he had heard from his forbearers about a new land of freedom and harmony among the people of the earth. On that fateful evening, with moving oratory and in a panoramic flight of the imagination, he took a poetic ministerial excursion through the history of Western civilization. He traveled with the Almighty from the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt across the Red Sea (but he did not stop there!); he journeyed through the great Hellenistic Period where he contemplated the lofty and eternal ideas of reality with Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle and all the classical philosophers of Greece (but he would not stop there); he paused at the great heyday of Roman civilization and made note of the developments in law and science that would shape the future of the Euro – western world (but he wouldn’t stop there); he reflected on the richness of the cultural and aesthetic contributions of the Renaissance (but he wouldn’t stop there); he stood over the shoulders of a vacillating president named Abraham Lincoln and witnessed the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (but he wouldn’t stop there); he sat in sympathetic appreciation of a president struggling with the trials of the Great Depression (but he wouldn’t stop there); and finally, he arrived in the latter half of the twentieth century. He said that if he had opportunity to live in any of these respective eras, he would have asked the Almighty to let him live in this particular period of history He said he was pleased to live during this chaotic and precarious age because he believed that this was a great moment for the revelation of God’s purposes in the world. King said:

“I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding—something is happening in our world. The masses of the people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same—”We want to be free.”

So, with wearied brow and the premonition of death surrounding him, in his last public sentences, he, like the prophets and seers of old, spoke of a vision, which is as old as human strivings and embraces a reality that comes from the future. He said:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Later that evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.  No one will ever match Dr. King’s eloquence during our lifetimes, but we have been inspired to make his dream truer with every passing year. 

And for waking us up – to Dr. King, we are eternally grateful.  In 1983, his birthday, January 15, was recognized as a National Federal Holiday. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

Doris E. Coleman, president of Blythewood Historical Society, is the former Director of Ethics and Compliance, Office of the General Counsel; Director of Title IX & Investigations; & IRB Administrator, MOREHOUSE COLLEGE, Atlanta, GA

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