There was a really interesting poll today in the Washington Post, which showed most Americans know who Dr. King was, but "they just aren't quite clear on what he worked to achieve." Some people even think he wanted to abolish slavery. Yikes! Actually, he wanted to move one step further than that, and get equality for all people — including African-Americans.
Today would have been his 78th birthday.
It's shocking that on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was born, Atlanta restaurants and drinking fountains, bathrooms and buses were divided between "white" and "colored."
In a decision thirty-three years earlier, the Supreme Court accepted segregation. The justices wrote that separate could be equal. In the America Dr. King grew up in, it never was. At best, separate meant dirty dishes and dingy bathrooms. At worst, it meant beatings and lynchings—and murders without consequence, and certainly without justice.
When Dr. King was a 26-year old pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks got arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Following in the footsteps of Gandhi, Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott through nonviolent, or civil disobedience. He organized carpools and cheap cab rides. He got churches to collect new shoes for those whose old ones had worn out from so much walking. And finally the boycott did enough economic damage to make a difference. But it actually took an entire year and a Supreme Court ruling before African-Americans gained the right to ride and drive buses like everyone else. It's hard to believe.
Dr. King was not just right; he was also smart. He knew that peaceful, organized protest would win the support of the American public — and he knew that media coverage of civil rights workers getting harassed by violent segregationists would serve the cause well on TV.
And, of course, in 1963, he led the March on Washington, the same year he also wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," as meaningful as the "I Have a Dream" speech.
Before he was killed, Dr. King would generate more protests, and give more speeches, and cause more controversy. He accepted a Nobel Peace Prize. He even opposed a war.
And on April 3, 1968, the day before he was killed, Martin Luther King gave an incredibly prophetic and powerful speech, which includes:
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's 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 so 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!
So behind the joys of a long weekend, it's worth thinking about the real purpose of this day. I'll be spending some time at dinner tonight talking to my kids about Dr. King's legacy. Maybe we all should.