By Paul Gable
Tuesday will be the thirty-first anniversary of the first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Dr. King was only 39 years old when he was shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
Rarely has anyone in history packed so much into 39 years.
Dr. King is best remembered as an outspoken advocate of civil rights.
He became the voice of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in December 1955.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses unconstitutional in 1956, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was truly dying. This decision followed on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954, which was the first major chink in the armor of Jim Crow laws established after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Court in 1896.
Dr. King was the Montgomery boycott’s protest leader and official spokesman, a position which thrust him onto the national and international stage for the remainder of his life.
In 1957, Dr. King was joined by other ministers and civil rights activists in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was committed to achieving full civil rights for African Americans through nonviolent means.
Perhaps Dr. King’s most remembered moment is his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.
He stated the basis for continued civil rights activism in the early part of that speech:
“…When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned…”
Great as that speech was, I believe Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in April 1963, was an even more powerful political dissertation.
One year later, Dr. King became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. King’s remaining years were few, but his impact on the country remained large.
As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we can only hope that his legacy is not lost on today’s politicians.
Full text of Letter from Birmingham Jail: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html