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January 13, 2010 > Martin Luther King, Jr. - an eternal icon

Martin Luther King, Jr. - an eternal icon

By Suzanne Ortt
Photos By William Mancebo

Take a step back in time... to the twentieth century. Envision the history of African-American oppression, particularly in much of the southern United States. Dissension is brewing. In the midst of these tumultuous times emerges a leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., an exceptional and complex man.

King was a family man and a spiritual teacher. Born in 1929 to Martin and Alberta King, Martin, Jr. had two siblings, a sister Willie Christine King and a brother, Alfred Daniel Williams. The nineteen-fifties were busy for him. He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 and as his father before him, he became a Baptist minister. In the next few years following his marriage to Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953, the Kings had four children: Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice. Martin Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. On June 5, 1955, he received a doctoral degree.

Dr. King became a phenomenal orator and a prolific writer, heavily influenced by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Hebrew prophets, and the non-violent principles and practices of Mahatma Gandhi. Many of his sermons and speeches were published and numerous volumes are in local libraries. His 'I Have a Dream' speech, given at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, is still widely disseminated as a defining moment of the civil rights movement.

As the battle for racial equality gained momentum, Dr. King became a dominant leader from 1955 to 1968. Before his emergence on the scene, segregation was already being challenged in the American south. During WWII, the repressive status quo was eroding. In 1941, a presidential order ended discrimination in federal and defense employment, although it continued in the military. The United States Supreme Court heard the Morgan v. Virginia case in 1946 and banned segregation in public transportation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909 and originally known as the National Negro Committee led these two efforts.

Real change gained traction in the mid-fifties. One sweeping landmark action was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. As a consequence, school integration was mandated. Policies promoting "separate but equal" no longer applied. The next year 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a bus in Montgomery. This sparked a yearlong bus boycott led by Dr. King and the beginning of his prominence in the civil rights movement.

A group of sixty African-American ministers and leaders, invited by Martin Luther King, Jr., gathered early in 1957 and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King was chosen as its first president. The organization's initial focus was to support nonviolent action for desegregating bus transportation. Later it expanded its purpose but remained committed to nonviolence.

African-American civil rights advocates and supporters faced continued repression and frequent violence during protests and marches. Pro-segregation forces dominated the news. 'Bull' Connor, commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, a renowned racist, was responsible for the use of police dogs and powerful water hoses against the peaceful demonstrators by Birmingham police. Powerful media images prompted President John F. Kennedy to begin supporting civil rights legislation in 1963. The following year, President Lyndon Johnson advocated for the Civil Rights Act which was passed by the United States Congress.

Two southern governors, Orval Faubus of Arkansas (1957) and George Wallace of Alabama (1963), used extreme tactics to block school integration. President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce integration in Central High School and stymied Faubus' efforts. Wallace is famous for his 'stand in the school house door.' Lester Mattox of Georgia, a private citizen who later became governor, also contributed to the anti-integration fervor.

Equally aggressive controversy surrounded James Meredith's attempts to enter 'Ole Miss' (the University of Mississippi). Meredith, a determined African-American student and activist, persisted against Governor Ross Barnett until the Supreme Court intervened. On October 1, 1962, Meredith was admitted. He graduated from the university on August 18, 1963. Folksinger Bob Dylan even wrote a song about this, 'Oxford Town.'

Although Dr. King and his followers practiced non-violence, brutality by the opponents did not stop. The abduction and murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, in August of 1955, galvanized the nation to confront the horror of racism. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing caused the deaths of four young girls in 1963. Three civil rights workers were jailed and then killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. A fictionalized account is told in the movie, 'Mississippi Burning.' Incidents of violence were perpetrated when activists tried to integrate lunch counters and to register voters. One positive result was the elimination of the voter poll tax by the 24th amendment on January 23, 1964.

In addition to racial equality, Dr. King was concerned about poverty and the Vietnam War. His final effort was a visit to Memphis to support a sanitation workers' strike. While standing on a motel balcony with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. King and died on April 4, 1968.

Accolades were accorded to Dr. King during his 13-year civil rights struggle. He was Time magazine's Man of the Year (1963) and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Dr. King fulfilled the maxim, "Don't just talk the talk, walk the walk." His courage was phenomenal and his legacy lives on. 'We Shall Overcome', an inspirational spiritual, became the anthem of the non-violent civil rights movement. It still is today.

In King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, this quote is memorable: "I have a dream that my four little 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." His dream resonates today, as it did in 1963.

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. Communities commemorate his memory annually on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the third Monday of January, which this year falls on Monday, January 18.

Local commemorative events include:

Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellowship Breakfast
Fremont-Newark YMCA
Friday, January15
7:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.
Keynote speaker: Garrett Yee
Speaker: Anu Natarjan
Fremont Christian Hand Bell Choir
Fremont Marriott
46100 Landing Parkway
(510) 279-2909
$40 per person
Reservations preferred, although tickets are available at the door

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2010 Invitational Forensic Tournament
January 15, 4 p.m. - 8 p.m.
January 16, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.
January 17, 8:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.
James Logan High School
1800 H Street, Union City
(510) 471-2520

Hayward Annual Peace March
Words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday, January 18
10 a.m.
Music from local youth; Opportunity to be a presence for peace
Hayward City Hall
777 B Street, Hayward
(510) 785-3663
Sponsored by South Hayward Parish

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration
Lift Every Voice - A Musical Tribute
Monday, January 18
6 p.m.
Chabot College Performing Arts Center
25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward
(510) 723-6976
Free Admission

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Breakfast
Celebrate the Action Behind the Words
Wednesday, January 20
11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
California State University of East Bay, Hayward Campus
Room 311, Old University Union
Department of Ethnic Studies
(510) 885-3255
Free of charge

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