A Dream Come True? Reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement
Apollos Nwauwa, Ph.D
Bowling Green State University, Ohio
This week, all across America (and the world), we remember the birth, life and time of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the impact and/or relevance of his vision, values and legacy. Through his dream and involvement in the civil rights movement, Dr. King gave hope and full meaning to the idea of equality, freedom, and justice. However, civil rights movements in America did not begin with Dr. King; it dates back to the signing of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The declaration contains a short but very powerful sentence, which states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Ever since, this sentence has remained the basis for future struggles for the protection of civil rights and civil liberties, and subsequent laws that would prohibit many forms of racial and gender discrimination in the United States.
The American founding fathers who issued this declaration had a somewhat narrow definition of the terms "all men" and "equality" as they excluded women, poor white male, and slaves who were denied full citizenship and the right to vote until much later. Similarly, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed the slaves, did not guarantee them "equal protection" under Federal law. Although the 15th Amendment of 1870 granted all citizens the right to vote, voting eligibility for blacks was still restricted by poll tax and literacy tests. Dr. King's struggle, therefore, was to complete what the founding fathers had overlooked - extension of equality, freedom and justice to all - regardless of race, gender, and class.
Dr. King was neither the first nor the last African-American to confront issues of civil rights and racial justice. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey, Dr. Ralph Bunche and others, all made their marks in the fight for civil rights and against racial injustice. While Du Bois and Garvey were advocates of pan-Africanism and racial equality, Woodson worked to preserved African-American cultural heritage resulting in what later became Black History Month. Ralph Bunche also made significant contributions to civil rights movement although his efforts were overshadowed by his diplomatic breakthrough in brokering the Arab-Israel peace agreement of 1949 for which he was duly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Equally, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a bi-racial organization founded in 1909, launched the first organized protest against racial inequity and injustice. Nonetheless, the US government kept civil rights issues in the backburner until Dr. King and others entered the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, both decades also represented an unprecedented era in nationalist (independence) movement in Africa when great African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and others waged campaigns to end European colonial subjugation. In both the African continent and America, black struggle was about freedom, equality, and justice. Without doubt, both movements drew moral force and support from each other.
Dr. King was unique in many significant respects. Despite winning a Nobel Prize for Peace, dying as a martyr at the age of 39, and having a federal holiday named after him there is still something about Dr. King that makes him so captivating and endearing to all even in death. Indeed, if Mount Rushmore had a place for ordinary Americans other than former presidents, Dr. King's face would be there. The question then is how did this black Georgian become an American icon at such a young age?
The story of Dr. King is not just about the civil rights movement or his approach to ending injustice. It is more about his vision for this country; his love for people, including his enemies; and his dream for a diverse but harmonious society where the bell of freedom and justice rings. If the 1950s and 1960s represented the golden age of civil rights movement in the US, they were also intertwined with the life, time, and struggle of Dr. King. This conclusion does not diminish the roles of his very important contemporaries in the struggle such as Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. In a sense, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott provided Dr. King what one could describe as the baptism of fire for an unflinching commitment to civil rights movement.
The efforts of Dr. King resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which declared discrimination based on race illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished literacy tests and poll taxes as preconditions for voting eligibility. America took a giant step towards ending all forms of racial injustice. Monumental as this achievement was, nevertheless, I believe that the best way to appreciate Dr. King's contributions is through a constant re-appraisal of his ideals and dreams for America. Before his death, he was able to convey his mission in life very clearly to Americans in several forums. One of the most memorable was his "I have A Dream" speech in Washington in 1963. Although we are quite familiar with this famous speech, what about the dream? What was the dream?
Dr. King's dream referred to what he called the Promised Land to which all Americans were headed, where justice, equality, peace, freedom and racial harmony reigned supreme. This Promised Land shunned violence, hatred and vengeance. Dr. King's approach to ending racial injustice followed closely Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and passive resistance. This approach to the civil rights movement was borne out of his belief that, no matter what, the oppressed should not strive to become the oppressor. For him, therefore, his struggle was about reconciliation and unity! According to him, "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhoodŠ." The Promised Land, for Dr. King, was one that represents the true American ideal that "all men are equal" and where privilege is not based on birth, class, or race but on personal character and achievements. Accordingly, "I have a dream that my own four 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." This dream for a harmonious, desegregated community of Americans sets him apart from other militant civil rights crusaders many of whom rejected his philosophy of non-violence.
Remarkably, Dr. King showed no bitterness as he constantly admonished blacks, especially the militant civil rights organizations to eschew violence. According to him, "In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." That Dr. King won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964 came as no surprise. That the country would later honor him, his ideals, and achievement in 1983 with a federal holiday is not surprising either. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39, he seemed to have accomplished his mission. The mission was a solid foundation for racial equality and harmony at the dawn of the 1970s.
As it were, Dr. King had premonitions of his premature death and martyrdom and, therefore, advised his congregation on how he wished to be remembered. In an excerpt from the book At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968 by Taylor Branch and published in the latest (January 2006) issue of the Time magazine, Dr. King told his congregation less than two months before his assassination how the eulogist should conduct his funeral. First, the eulogy should be very brief. Second, the eulogist should omit all his honors and attainments. Third, and most importantly, Dr. King advised the eulogist, "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice! Say I was a drum major for peace - I was a drum major for righteousness - and all the other shallow things will not matter." Thus, this leaves no one in doubt that Dr. King clearly understood his mission in life and dream for America.
The question then is: how would Dr. King be feeling if he were alive today? I bet he would be happy and sad, fulfilled and disappointed. He would hesitate to say "Mission Accomplished," yet, he would not admit that his struggles were in vain. At the government level, for instance, the post-1960s witnessed the consolidation of the progress on civil rights. Affirmative Action policy was instituted to close the educational and employment opportunities for minorities and women, with those given to their white, male counterparts. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act was extended in 1975, and a federal holiday was established in 1983 to commemorate Dr. King's birthday and celebrate his legacy. Clearly, his advice to his eulogist on his legacy through the "Drum Major" analogy was not misplaced.
The appointment of General Colin Powel as the first black to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989 and the election of Douglas Wilder (Virginia) as the first black to be elected governor represented a shift. Likewise, the elevation of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice, the second black to attain this position after Thurgood Marshall, the appointment of Colin Powel as the first black US Secretary of State and Condoleezza Rice as the first black and female national security adviser in 2001, represented continuity. Rice has since become the first black woman to serve as Secretary of State. Although some African-Americans see these individuals as "Uncle Tom," catering to the interests of whites rather than those of African-Americans, there is no question that blacks have increasingly gained acceptability as equals within government circle. Beyond governmental levels, blacks have also made significant advances in industry, manufacturing, entertainment, and the academy. Abilities of blacks in all works of life are no longer in doubt or overshadowed by the color of their skin. Racial relation have improved significantly. A slow but steady recognition of blacks as equals of other races fulfills Dr. King's dream.
Yet Dr. King would be sad with the continuous erosion of the principle of Affirmative Action coupled with racial tensions, discrimination, intolerance, and hate crimes against blacks. Data gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1990 to 1996 regarding hate crimes show that blacks are most often the victims of race-motivated crimes. The data reflect that from 1992 to 2000, there has been a 52% increase in the number of hate crimes reported against African Americans. Racial profiling has become an unpleasant fact of everyday life for blacks. Rodney King's brutal beating by the LA police in 1991, and the subsequent acquittal of four officers charged with using excessive force on King demonstrated that America is not yet free from racial prejudice and injustice as Dr. King expected.
Similarly, the brutal killing of a black man, James Byrd, in Jasper Texas in 1998 represented the height of hate crime in our time. Three men with ties to the White Supremacist groups chained Byrd to a pickup truck and dragged him 2 miles tearing off his head, part of his neck and his right arm. Although it has become more difficult to detect and prosecute, racial prejudice against blacks has continued. We all can recall one of the most dramatic cases, which occurred in 1996 over a secret tape recording of a 1994 meeting of Texaco company executives. These executives vilified black employees and approved of a systematic policy to keep them from advancing to top positions within the company. If he were alive, Dr. King would have staged a protest march in Texas. The recent Toledo Riot of 2005 resulting from a march by a White Supremacist group is constant reminder that racial bigotry is alive and well.
Furthermore, the latest issue of Time magazine reports the responses of four of Dr. King's close associates - Marian Edelman, John Lewis, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson - to the question of "What if King was alive today," and these are quite instructive. These associates believe that Dr. King would be dealing with old issues as well as newer and more complex problems of our time. In view of recent events in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina devastation, Dr. King would have been dealing with issues of hunger, poverty and economic injustice in a different way for a better sense of community and inclusiveness. We should recall that this question of poverty and economic injustice was the project Dr. King had directed his attention just before his death. Furthermore, Andrew Young believes that Dr. King would have picked up international diplomacy where Ralph Bunche left off in mediating the Middle East crisis. For Jesse Jackson, however, Dr. King would have opposed the war in Iraq because it was based on deception; he would have opposed spying on American people who protest the war; more importantly, he would have been building multi-racial, multi-cultural coalitions, fighting to end the war in Iraq, and challenging the unconstitutional moves.
In conclusion, as America honors the man whose life was dedicated to justice and freedom, we must always remember that although Dr. King was African-American, his dream was very cosmopolitan. His mission was not just to secure justice for African-Americans but also to ensure freedom for all Americans. As he put it: "The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." To honor Dr. King, therefore, let freedom and justice ring!