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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we will be hearing many quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream Speech,” and much about what happened that day in and around the Lincoln Memorial. That, of course, is right and proper. But more than that, it is incumbent upon those of us who were alive then to remind those who weren’t what it was all about and why it was even necessary. Because that day was about more than just soaring and inspirational rhetoric.

On that August 28th date, just eight years before, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted from his relatives’ house where he was visiting in Money, Mississippi and horribly tortured and killed by two men for allegedly having whistled at the wife of one of them.

I was young at the time of the 1963 march, but none of us alive then could be ignorant of what was happening in the bloody American South. Those images are forever seared in our memories.

Two and a half months before the march – on June 12, 1963 – 37-year-old World War II veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down as he pulled into his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council.

Just 18 days after Dr. King’s speech, Addie May Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – four African American girls ranging in age from 11 to 14 – were killed when four proud members of the United Klans of America planted a box of dynamite in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was set with a timed fuse so that it would go off during a service. The sermon scheduled for that day was entitled, “The Love That Forgives.”

The following “Freedom Summer” – late on the night of June 21, 1964 – one black and two white civil rights and voter registration activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were arrested by police officers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and turned over to a lynch mob made up of members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were shot at close range and their bodies buried.

A year and a half after the King speech – on March 7, 1965 – peaceful protesters in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights were violently attacked by state troopers as they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River.

Later that month, Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Michigan, was shot and killed by four Ku Klux Klan members while driving her car to pick up civil rights marchers in Lowndes County, Alabama.

We could go on and on with incidents like this. And it was not just overt violence perpetrated by thugs purporting to be upstanding citizens and community leaders. Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown, employing a strategy proudly proclaimed as “massive resistance,” a number of counties in Virginia closed their public schools rather than integrate. In 196, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett ordered the arrest of “Freedom Riders” and the next year went up against the Justice Department in trying to prevent James Meredith from enrolling in the University of Mississippi. On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from enrolling.

Contrast these shameful “leaders” with the giants who organized the March on Washington: Dr. Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, White Young of the National Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, now a United States Congressman from Georgia. Justice is sacred, and their names are sacred in the annals of justice.

In this day and age, when we are so sensitive to any whiff of terrorism, it is important to remember that terrorism and officially sanctioned intimidation against African Americans and anyone else who tried to help them was accepted and tolerated in this nation for more than a century. Many men and women lived and died to get us even to the imperfect place where we are today. And as recent cases have shown us, much work remains to be done on both sides.

But those of us who remember have an obligation to make sure the heroes and martyrs of the struggle for equality are never forgotten.

Teach your children well.

3 Responses to Fifty Years Ago

  1. sherry says:

    When I was a child, I used to wish I could have been a part of this, and marched on the streets with them, because I thought how blacks were treated was so wrong. I still believe that they being treated less than equal was wrong, because we are all created by God, but I find myself wondering when I see people like Jesse Jackson, Al Shapton, and Obama, just to name a few, whether what Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in the streets was the same as what he said behind closed doors? If so, then how can the people like Jackson and Sharpton, while claiming to represent what King stood for, have developed the racist attitude that they have, when it is obvious they do not have the best intentions for the people they claim to represent? King said a person should be judged by their charater, not the color of their skin, but it is blacks who place the emphasis on color. Why would so many follow them and even commit murder for what they claim is Justice, when blacks have had every opportuntiy that many whites have, if not more so? Is it possible there was a hidden agenda? I think that many whites are beginning to wonder, but for fear of being called a racist, they don’t speak out. Of course there are many good black people, But, if you have black friends, you’ll be accused of having them because you don’t won’t to look racist, and if you don’t have black friends it must be because you are racist.

  2. Cornerstone says:

    Nicely said. Though none so glaring as aggressive racism, It made me think of other inequities as well that have been enduring since the 19th Century and into this one to varying degrees: tacit sanctioning of domestic and child abuse by police refusing to interfere once called; tacit santioning of violence on gays with police failing to respond to mugging reports in gay districts; the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators at Kent State and elsewhere in the hippie era; relocation of Native Americans in an attempt to “breed them out” as late as the 1950s, following, of course the mandated destruction of their food sources in the 1800s and coercive techniques to convert them to Christianity; and my personal favorite, continuing to pay women only 70% of what men make while telling them what to do with their own bodies as of August 28, 2013.

    Progress is slow, and sometimes it stops and goes backwards, something we all must maintain vigilance against, on all fronts.

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