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King’s pursuit still making a difference

This past Monday we celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was born on Jan. 15, 1929 and died by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. His leadership of the successful Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955-1956 made him a national figure. This led to his being elected in 1957 as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference giving him a national platform from which he would spearhead the growing civil rights movement

King was tireless in the pursuit of racial justice for African Americans and in the 11 years between 1957 and 1968 he traveled over 6 million miles and spoke more than 2,500 times, going wherever African Americans were oppressed by racism. He led civil rights protests in the south most notably the 1963 Birmingham, Alab., protest against racial segregation and economic injustice in that city.

King’s intent was to provoke mass arrests and “create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” He was arrested early in the protests and while imprisoned he wrote âLetter from Birmingham Jail,” a response to calls from some quarters for the movement to pursue legal channels rather than confrontation He argued that the crises of racism was so urgent and the system then existing so entrenched that the oppressors would never give freedom to the oppressed and that the oppressed must demand it.

He is perhaps best remembered for organizing and leading the peaceful march on Washington by 250,000 people in 1963 and for his âI have a Dreamã speech delivered there. It was a speech that spoke to King’s vision of an America, where despite the issues and problems it faced then and would face in the future, could in the end fulfill King’s dream. I believe King gave us the essence of that dream when he said âI have dream that my four small children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.ã

King’s legacy lies in the advancements made in civil rights in America. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, is considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.

First proposed by President John F. Kennedy, it survived strong opposition from southern members of Congress and was then signed into law by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. In subsequent years, Congress expanded the act and passed additional civil rights legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shortly after Kingás death Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title eight of that act known as the Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.

King was sometimes criticized by other black leaders who felt he had become too much of a media figure who had lost touch with the movement’s grassroots. Others like separatist Stokely Carmichael disagreed with Kingás plea for racial integration because he considered it an insult to a uniquely African-American culture.

From outside the movement, he was wire tapped by the FBI for a period of five years on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover to undermine his position as a civil rights leader. Further, his communications were monitored by the NSA because of his criticism of the Vietnam War and the CIA surveiled him because of alleged contacts with Communists.

During his life, King’s main influence was always Jesus Christ and the Christian Gospels. King was strongly influenced by Christ’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies. His embrace of nonviolence was based in the injunction to turn the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount.

His methodology in engaging in nonviolent protests was guided by Gandhi’s example.

King was not a perfect man but he was able, like all great men, to rise above his human failings and become the leader of a movement that profoundly changed the way most Americans thought about and approached the issues of racial justice and civil rights.

I know that some will disagree but as a child of 1940s who lived through the turmoil of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s I can attest that while some degree of racism might still exist, I believe that the United States has come a long way in trying to live out the dreams of Rev. King.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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