Mr. Andrew Young emerged from a mainly white constituency to become the first black United States Congressman from Georgia. He later became the U.S. Representative to the United Nations.
General Colin Powell was the first African-American Secretary of State, followed by Ms. Condoleezza Rice.
Barack Obama handsomely won the American elections to become the first African-American President of the United States of America. He was sworn-in today for the second-term as the 44th President of the most powerful nation in the world.
There are many more people in dignified callings and respectable careers, African-Americans, Latinos, Arabs, and Asian-Americans, even under-classed white people, who would have otherwise been pushed under for racism, but for the deft, perseverance, dedication and struggle of the nonviolent movement championed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These are testimonies to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though African-Americans were denied rights and liberties, Dr. King had “a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” In celebrating him, we read about him, reflect on his works, his methods, rejoice in his accomplishments, and resolve to carry forward, in the spirit of non-violence, the unfinished tasks of a non-racial egalitarian society where one is judged “not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”.
The Supreme Court in March 1857 gave a landmark judgment where Justice R. B. Taney declared that African Americans were not citizens of the U.S. and should not derive any right from the constitution of The United States. It became clear that African-Americans needed more than the response of Abraham Lincoln that “the authors of the Declaration of Independence never intended ‘to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity’, but they ‘did consider all men created equal—equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.” (Abraham Lincoln, 1858, Jaffa, pp. 299-300).
The history of African-Americans in the United States has some similarities to that of the children of Israel in Egypt. The goodness of Joseph and the famine in the land of Canaan led to the movement of the House of Jacob to Egypt. But when the king that knew Joseph was no more, the circumstance of the Israelites in Egypt turned into nightmares. Moses led the liberation squad.
A great population of Africans were captured and transported to the New World as a workforce for the agricultural fields, and later, the industries. Many died on the voyages; others became casualties to the climate of their new world, while some others fell to the harsh working conditions and severe taskmasters. The survivors were subjected to slavish struggle from one generation to another.
When slavery was abolished, African-Americans were declared free to live as they wish, where they want, and with whomever they choose. But most of the slave-owners, particularly in the southern territory of the United States, reneged on this arrangement. The post-war era witnessed the wanton application of segregation laws which subjugated formerly freed black slaves into the firm control of the whites. Every aspect of the life of the black man was segregated all across the southern states. These codes, called Jim Crow Laws, forced the black people into the rural regions where they were subjected to forced labor on the farmlands.
Congress legislated to correct these anomalies through constitutional amendments.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution in 1865 confirmed the Emancipation Proclamation setting free the slaves.
The Fourteenth Amendment constitutionally granted citizenship rights to the African-Americans in 1868.
The Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 confers on all male adult citizens the rights to vote without denial as a result of one’s race, color, or past record of servitude.
However, one hundred years after the Proclamation of Emancipation, almost all African-American population were not free, were not proven citizens, and could therefore not vote or be voted for.
It was into this kind of parlous situation that Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. Living and growing up as a child in Atlanta, little King was able to understand racism and segregation firsthand when he found out that the children he used to play with as a child were no longer his friends when he started school. He found out that his parents could not just go anywhere they wished to go, and that he could not just attend the schools of his choice because of some certain laws of segregation and discrimination.
Martin attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, from where he proceeded to Morehouse College. Martin graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. King later obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary, Chester, Pennsylvania in 1951. King got married in 1953, was ordained, and became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. Along with the work of the Ministry, King worked on his Doctoral Degree in Philosophy, which was concluded in 1955. Dr. King took serious interests in Mohandas Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest.
Two occurrences happened in 1955 that were to have significant impact on the Dr. King: the black struggle in America, and the image of the black man all over the world.
Claudette Colvin refused to comply with the Jim Crow segregation laws in March 1955 by an utter defiance to give up her bus seat for a white man. She was arrested and tried. Dr. King was the African-American representative on the investigating committee. Colvin went scot free.
On December 1, 1955, Ms. Rosa Parks refused to give up her place in the front row of the section reserved for colored people to a white man. She was arrested and jailed. The Montgomery Improvements Association, led by Dr. King, intervened, boycotting the local bus network for 381 days until Ms Parks was released, and the bus network was desegregated.
From this point onwards Dr. King resolved to give the civil rights movement his entire life, support and dedication.
The Montgomery bus boycott had not only been very successful, but also proved to be a good and fruitful testing ground for Dr. King’s strong conviction in non-violent protest method, and its ability to bring about fruitful results, despite many arrests and intimidation that he and his family suffered. Other civil rights activists who were hitherto bent on forceful means borrowed Dr. King’s non-violent approach, and were able to get good results.
Dr. King went ahead to lead, coordinate and participate in various non-violent civil rights activities that aided in bringing the African-Americans to their land of freedom. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the SCLC, was established in 1957 as an umbrella body for Christian leaders to utilize the voice of the churches for successful conduct and execution of non-violent protests. NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had been in existence for similar objectives, but the SCLC was an effective vessel in this regard, using the church and the legal approach to get results. Dr. King led the group until his death in 1968.
Despite his tight schedules, Dr. King wrote a great deal. He missed death by the whiskers in 1958 when he was stabbed while signing autographs on copies of his book, Stride towards Freedom.
He further enunciated his Mohandas Gandhi’s style of non-violent protest in another book published in 1959 titled The Measure of Man. That year, Dr. King visited India to learn first-hand the principles of nonviolent persuasion, satyagraha, from Mohandas Gandhi. Later, Dr. King, after being saddled with more responsibilities in the Human Rights movement, stepped down as the Pastor of the Montgomery Baptist Church in Alabama to co-pastor the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with his father.
Many protests and demonstrations were organized under the leadership of Dr. King. Most often his life was endangered through outright attacks and visible as well indirect threats from racial white opponents. He was arrested and put in jail several times. He was castigated as an anti-social communist, a traitor of the state, and a friend of the enemies of the state. Dr. King neither bothered nor waivered; he rather went about his plans and aspirations for the unfairly treated black people, and the common good of all people no matter their color, creed or lineage.
Dr. King was able to persuade some whites and the American leadership to address the burning subject of inequality that was pervading the American society. Through his leadership, many African-Americans were inspired and led to support his activities. This brought about a new dimension in the lives of the black Americans themselves as well as a new wave of positive reassessment of the black communities by their white folks. Segregation policies were confronted; racialist tendencies were attacked and opposed more than ever. The ultra-racial white supremacy group, the Ku Klux Klan, was greatly intimidated by the style, tactics and wisdom with which Dr. King prosecuted his non-violent campaigns.
The effort of the SCLC in Albany, Georgia in 1961 to demonstrate against segregated facilities failed woefully to accomplish the designed objectives. Nevertheless, Dr. King’s team was able to garner prime national awareness for the plight of African-Americans.
In the spring of 1963, the SCLC protested in Birmingham, Alabama. School children and teenagers were engaged. The police, in the attempt to frustrate the march, pelted them with water hoses and ferocious hounding dogs. These ugly scenes were circulated across the world, giving rise to condemnations of the segregation laws, as well as the retributions of the agents engaged to enforce it. Dr. King and his team won. The authorities were forced to rethink on the real benefits of Jim Crow laws.
Out of spite and anger, the authorities in Birmingham arrested and jailed Dr. King, but he took full advantage of the undeserved punishment. He wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he successfully defended and justified the protests. The letter was given wide media coverage, and enhanced Dr. King’s good standing as a moral leader.
Right on the hills of the Birmingham protests in Alabama, Dr. King worked in collaboration with other black leaders to organize the 1963 peaceful march between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It was in this protest march that Dr. King delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech. In the epic speech, the entire world was addressed on the impatience of African Americans to continue wallowing in poverty and left devoid of basic rights of citizenship and freedom. The march was a great achievement and moment of glory for the civil rights movement and the black community. Its direct effect was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in the same year.
Dr. King coordinated the march in 1965 on Selma, Alabama, which proceeded to Montgomery with the purpose of drawing national attention to the lack of voting rights by black youths and adults of voting age. The civil disobedience effort was a tough battle with white segregationists and civil authorities. Dr. King narrowly escaped being lynched and brutalized, while many of his colleagues were terribly beaten and maltreated. The day was called Bloody Sunday.
A direct benefit of the Selma march was the signing into law by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965 of the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates for black people of age to vote and be voted for.
Dr. King kept up the tempo to fight injustice in the land in every aspect of the American life till he was assassinated April 4, 1968. He never applied violence, nor did he bear a gun. He was opposed to warfare, a gentleman of peace, law and order. He fought for the causes of the African Americans, but supported, as well the noble causes of other Americans, white, colored, and various immigrants.
While lifting up the status of the African-American to the point of holding the highest office in America, he had made the United States of America a better place than he met it. Yes, celebration is in the air, as we rejoice this January 15th, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because all over us, and all around us, are the testimonies and legacies of his achievements, despite the frailties of being human like us.