Tag Archive | "Martin Luther King Jr."

The Soul of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King Jr. Contemplative

She cries, “Where have all Papa’s heroes gone?”
(David Bowie, Young Americans)


Recorded in 1974, Bowie’s incisive take on the American landscape included references to racism and Rosa Park’s renowned ride.  In penning that song, and particularly the line above, Bowie may very well have had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in mind.  By 1968, we had lost three of our most fearless and selfless visionaries to cowardly assassins: President Jack Kennedy, his brother, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and Dr. King.  When the news of Dr. King’s murder hit, like a blow to my gut, I mourned him piteously.


For days, I wept for this irreplaceable loss.  My middle-class, all white, New York family could not understand why their child, who had only seen the Southern black activist in the news, was inconsolable.  I had not done this for Jack, and I would not do this for Bobby — both of whom I had greatly admired.  In my youth and in my grief, I lacked the words to explain how Dr. King had touched me.  Perhaps I still lack that eloquence.  But my deep and abiding respect for Dr. King compels me to try to craft an explanation.


As the student of a forward-thinking nun striving to steep her pupils in current events (and in some instances, making us active participants in them), I was aware of the struggle for racial equality.  I wasn’t sheltered from the violence in the news; I knew who Doctor King was, and was aware of his justifiable cause.  A Christian and a Catholic, I was raised to respect people of all nationalities and races, and taught by my family, prior to my formal education, to understand that this was Jesus’ wish.  But it was not until I had seen Dr. King from the comfort of my living room, as he confronted the nation during his 1963 march on Washington, that I truly understood the heart of his mission — and in fact, the heart of this great man.


Not yet eight years old, I was enthralled by the Doctor’s very bearing.  His demeanor, his erudite speech, the dignity in the way that he simply stood behind the microphone demanded respect in a very quiet, yet immensely powerful way.  When he said the following words, I understood at soul level what he was attempting to achieve. 


“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


Suddenly, Dr. King’s simple and profound statement crystallized everything for me.  In my mind’s eye, I imagined how my little sister, my friends, my classmates, and I might suffer if we had been judged simply because we’d been white.  I envisioned the depth and longevity of that suffering, had we been born black.   It all made sense: complete and utter and inarguable sense.  After all these years, having read Dr. King’s articulate letters and his very moving autobiography, as edited by Clayborne Carson, nothing that this great man has ever said has captured my heart as that one statement made in August 1963.  Somehow, Dr. King has inspired me to be a better person.  I will never be the person that he was, but he remains one of my enduring heroes; in fact, he set the standard of role models for me.


Some of the more salient but perhaps lesser-known facts that I would like to share with you concerning our finest civil rights leader include the following:


●       He did not seek the Presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; in fact, he tried several times to pass that responsibility to someone else.  He felt he was unworthy.  But his colleagues would not stand down, and thank God they did not.


●       When Dr. King’s house was bombed with his wife and his firstborn child, two-month-old Yoli inside, he struggled deeply with his convictions.  On one hand, his people and indeed the entire nation needed him.  Racists were trampling the very tenants of our Constitution – that which protects the freedoms of every American.  On the other hand, as a husband and a father, he was obligated to protect his family.  One night, Dr. King rose from his bed, tormented by the awful decision he had to make.  Sitting at the kitchen table, he bowed his head, begging the Lord for direction.  Suddenly, a profound sense of peace washed over him, and he knew the path he must take, as well as the sacrifices that lay ahead of him.


●       Although she went for long periods without her husband to help raise their four children, Coretta Scott King supported him staunchly every step of the way.  In fact, one of the reasons Martin fell in love with Coretta was because of her dedication-in-action to assist her people to achieve the equality promised them under U.S. law.


●       In his living room, above the table at which he shared meals with his family, hung a photograph of “Mahatma” Gandhi.  A similar photo hung in Dr. King’s office, but the fact that he’d honored the Indian leader quietly, within his own home, spoke volumes of his approach to his mission.   Unfailingly, Dr. King exhorted his followers not to take up arms against their oppressors: not to land a single blow or fire a single bullet.  Like Gandhi, he favored “passive resistance” and like Jesus Christ, he turned the other cheek, again and again and again.  This, despite the fact that he’d predicted he would one day be assassinated for his part in the struggle for racial equality.


●       Jack Kennedy assisted Dr. King in his quest, but it was Bobby Kennedy who was truly committed to the Doctor’s cause.  JFK’s younger brother tirelessly served as communiqué/advocate between the President and the civil rights leader.     


●      After Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed in September of 1963, leaving six dead, including four young girls, Dr. King pressured Jack into a radical act.  Jack, who was in King’s corner all along, argued that he’d need another two years to market a complete civil rights bill to Congress.  Refusing to take “No” for an answer, and without resorting to violence or even threatening it, Dr. King convinced the President of the United States to reverse Alabama Governor George Wallace’s aggressive enforcement of segregation in that State’s schools.


●       Jack’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) strengthened Kennedy’s position less than a year later by signing The Public Acclamation and Fair Employment section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  LBJ offered the pen he had used to Dr. King, who accepted it gratefully.  Moved beyond words, the activist and future Nobel Peace Prize winner would later say that the pen represented his greatest possession.


●       Doctor King had primarily organized and marched in Birmingham, Alabama, as “That is where the fight is at its strongest.”  In Birmingham, at the behest of Police Commissioner Bull Connor, and as executed by his staff and supporters, King and his people suffered many injustices and horrors, culminating in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church.


After a thirteen-year struggle, was Doctor King’s dream realized?  Yes, it was.  Are we still fighting it?  Yes, we are.  Here at home, and in all parts of the world, we still fight injustice in all its guises. The missions of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International prove that we do, and prove that we must.  We still rail against the crushing of the human spirit, against the theft of inalienable rights.  And, some of us do so through the timeless beauty and power of music.


In November of 1968, Dion’s gentle Abraham, Martin, and John entered the Billboard charts.  Eleven years after Bowie launched Young Americans, a rising Irish group called U2 released two songs in Dr. King’s honor.  Pride (in the Name of Love) is a rousing testimony to my hero’s vision and sacrifice; MLK is a gentle, haunting, spiritual paean.


Two decades after U2’s musical testimonies, I happened to catch a young, unsigned musician-singer-songwriter on a program I’d never before seen: American Idol.  As Taylor Hicks introduced his cover of Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City, the tears tracked unchecked down my face. With great tenderness, Taylor explained that the song reminded him of his city back home.  I cried because, between the time that Dr. King had fought his fight and the time that this episode of Idol aired, much had changed in the city of Birmingham.  The color line was no longer tolerated.  Hicks’ musical sensibilities, in fact, had been forged upon those of soul greats such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the inimitable Ray Charles: gifted black artists, all.


When I flew to Birmingham for the second time in September 2009, I noticed a small monument in the Birmingham International Airport erected to honor Dr. King.  I have a dear cousin firmly entrenched in Birmingham, a former New Yorker whose heart lies in the Deep South; I love him dearly.  My primary purpose, however, in flying many miles was to experience two amazing concerts by Taylor Hicks.  The moment that I spied the brown marble monument in the airport’s lobby, I pulled my friend Pam over to it and made her read it, even as my own eyes blurred with tears.   Carved into the marble was a quote from the great Doctor King, and I’m sorry, but I cannot remember the exact words.  They were, however, his perspective as to how every human being is truly connected.


With the lines of justice, and the lines of history – national, musical, and familial — crisscrossing there, on that day and in that city, I was reminded once again of how very right my hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, was.  Regardless of skin color, religious affiliation, nationality, or any other factor, we are indeed all connected.  And we always will be.

I Have a Dream

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Martin Luther King Jr.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. – then the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – addressed an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.  Gathered together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, those participants bore witness to one of the most stirring and memorable addresses in the history of the Republic.


In 1963, the United States was a deeply divided country.  In the hundred years since President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the status of African-Americans in America had not changed dramatically.  Denied voting rights in many Southern states and equal economic opportunities nationally, they – although no longer slaves – were not truly free.  In the northern states, most African-Americans lived in ghettos in major cities.  In the South, they existed as “second class” citizens, segregated from white Americans as a result of Jim Crow Laws enacted by states and municipalities that allegedly provided them “separate but equal” status.


In the 1950’s, attempts by individual African-Americans to achieve social justice were met by police brutality and violence against their communities.  It was in this racially-charged atmosphere that Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed to the founding and assumed the mantle of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to using the moral authority and organizing power of the African-American Christian community in advancing the cause of civil rights.


Drawing upon the tenets of Christianity and the example of nonviolent civil disobedience displayed by Mahatma Gandhi in India, Dr. King was among the leaders of what would become known as the American Civil Rights Movement.  Of course, as in all movements, there were others who advocated different, more extreme means to achieve their ends – such as, violence and rioting.  Dr. King, however, never strayed from the high moral ground.


It is against this backdrop of deep division in our country and division among the African-American community at large that Dr. King addressed his audience, the nation, and the world.  Confident in the rightness of his cause and the “redemptive” value of “unearned suffering,” he warned his followers to refrain from attempts to “satisfy [their] thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” and extolled them to “conduct [their] struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”


At the same time, he admonished those in authority of the “fierce urgency of Now” – that small, incremental change would not be acceptable, but rather “the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice” was Now.  And, he buoyed the spirits of those in despair with a vision of a land free of racial division and strife.


Thus, in a “dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” Dr. King envisioned a time when America would achieve “racial justice,” when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”  And, on that day, asserted Dr. King, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”


Dr. King, like many others throughout the centuries who have attempted to change the established order, made the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.  His efforts, however, have not been in vain.  Nearly four decades after his slaying, the legal barriers to equality of opportunity for all have been removed.


This does not mean that prejudice no longer exists.  It simply indicates that there is now no official federal or state-sponsored bias.  Prejudice, however, is still alive and well and resides in the human heart and soul.  Not simply racially-based, it can be based on gender, age, religion, socioeconomic status, appearance, and a variety of other factors.


The next great breakthrough in human rights, I believe, will not come via governmental fiat.  There will be no marches or demonstrations.  No speeches or proclamations will be made.  It will arrive silently and without fanfare.  It will occur when each of us truly realizes the dignity and worth of each and every human being, regardless of race, creed, age, sex, or country of origin.  It may not happen until mankind is faced with extinction or another cataclysmic event, but it will come.  And, when it does, perhaps we will achieve Dr. King’s dream of freedom in spirit as well as in law.

Raise Your Voice (America Gave You One)

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Let Your Voice Be Heard


When the twisted fiends felled the Twin Towers on 9/11, Internet chatter as well as direct messages seeping like toxic waste out of terrorist camps indicated that they’d accomplished more than they’d hoped for (they had not expected the total obliteration of both structures).  In their wildest and sickest dreams, the terrorists could not have anticipated  the fallout from the blackest day on American soil.


This fallout runs deeper than the subsequent crisis on Wall Street, our military’s hunt for Bin Laden in his rat holes, escalation of our forces in Iraq, and the current recession.  For the love of God — and if you don’t love God, then for the love of our country — please read my last statement again, carefully.  Let it go through you like slow ice.  What could possibly be worse than any or all of that?  The dismantling of our tenets underpinning our Constitution is the absolute worst that can happen — and it’s been happening, because in our fear and anger and apathy, we have allowed it to happen.


Viewed impartially, the Constitution is nothing more and nothing less than a soul pact.  It’s the pact that our forefathers made with each other, and with all future generations born upon this soil, and those immigrating to this soil to take the oath of citizenry.  It is an agreement that all men, women, and children are born into this world via something greater than themselves, with unalienable rights bestowed upon them by that God.  God is and must remain an essential part of our national equation because without a higher authority, to whom are we accountable as a nation?  And we must be accountable as a nation, to ourselves and to the Constitution.


The treatment of confirmed and self-proclaimed terrorists in Gitmo Bay, the Federal edict to try the terrorists in civil rather than military courts, the potentiality of a national healthcare system, jobs going overseas, corporate scum bailed out to the tune of billions on the blood, sweat, and tears of private citizens, the war in Iraq — all of this has plunged us into a socio-political and economic crisis more intense and even more trying that what we had endured in the ’60s’s — and that’s saying a lot. Our President’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize with one hand while escalating the war in Afghanistan with the other should not have stunned anyone.  It is perhaps the most glaring example of how torn our nation has become.


No matter the winds that buffet us at home and from abroad, we must hold tight to our freedoms as citizens, and honor — not just give lip service to — the principles upon which the Constitution is based.   There must be no double standards here, and since there are, we must work to rectify them.  The world still watches and waits to see what America does; what will we show them?


We will show them what we are made of.  We will show them what has kept us intact and what has strengthened us thus far.  This is not the first time that we’ve been tossed upon the churning waters of national flux; not the first time that our envelope was pushed to its limits.


Blood ran in our streets in the 1960’s, and for too long (even one day is too long).  Entire families were forever fractured over the long bloody war in Vietnam.  Women emerged as an inarguable and permanent factor in the work force.  Men walked on the moon for the first time in history.  Eastern theosophy rose slowly on America’s shores, illuminating the Golden Rule, as God knows, we needed illumination.  Three of our best and bravest were cut down before our eyes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Jack Kennedy, and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  They did not die in vain but rather, inspired and instituted legislation that solidified the canons stated in our Constitution, far beyond mere rhetoric. These three men and those who supported them strengthened the reality behind the concept that we are all of us in this together (“E pluribus Unum”: “Out of many, One”).


Like those who tossed the tea into the Boston Harbor more than two centuries ago, and those who marched on Washington and through local streets forty-plus years ago, you must exercise your rights under the Constitution in order to keep that Constitution alive.   If something troubles you — an elected leader, a corrupt or inhuman and inhumane organization –  speak out.  Now is not the time for burying your head in the sand; nor is it the time for indulging in self-pity.  And nothing that impacted the common good was ever gained through silence and indifference. Much, however, was gained through peaceful organization, the raising of communal voices, unmitigated pressure upon our elected leaders, and the passage of true and lasting change.

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