Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in his quest for civil rights because he appealed to the better angles of America's nature.
Confronted with the injustices of Jim Crow, the majority of the nation grew to understand these laws were fundamentally unfair, wrong and un-American. The legal barriers that had been erected to deny citizens their full, God-given rights were dismantled, and this was done the right way — not with dynamite, but peacefully and democratically, so that everyone could share in the accomplishment.
Of course, there were many incidents of violence in the struggle — but primarily from those who opposed King's march to equality. King and his followers faced fists, clubs, dogs, fire hoses, jail, bombs and death, not just from their fellow citizens who resisted change, but also from government agents such as police who brutally enforced laws that were antithetical to the nation's founding principles.
King responded with a most powerful weapon: moral clarity.
That gave nonviolent force to his persuasion. It was exemplified by his famous "I Have a Dream" speech Aug. 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. His stirring rhetoric — which still can elicit goosebumps today — expressed a simple desire for equality of treatment and opportunity, creating a nation where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
King's courage and determination gave strength to fellow blacks to stand up for their rights, and inspired many whites to stand with them. They produced the political momentum necessary to pass two landmark pieces of federal legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Although that was achieved with the stroke of a pen, King also accomplished the more difficult task of changing hearts and minds.
King, alas, was unable to complete the journey — an assassin's bullet cut him down April 4, 1968. But his legacy lives on in a society that, although imperfect, is significantly closer to upholding its founding ideals of freedom and equality.
The civil rights cause has taken a fresh turn the last two years as public attention has focused on high-profile examples of African-Americans who were fatally shot by police or died in their custody — Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. These and other incidents have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and its controversial, disruptive protests.
Indeed, as government employees and others return to work today, the holiday over, we should not leave behind the celebration and we should remember that while King is rightly heralded as an emancipator of blacks, civil rights are not limited to race or minority status. They belong to all of us. If some are not free, then ultimately none are.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD
Photo credit: Maryland GovPics