MLK’s legacy should inspire us all to be better people, in every possible way
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” Martin Luther King Jr, April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.
Yesterday (Monday) was Martin Luther King Day in the USA. I was reminded of that when I spoke with a journalist colleague of mine in the States last evening. It ignited memories of my school days, as I remembered when I was in 5th class in St Patrick’s Boys School. One of my first projects, for Master Tiernan, was on great historical figures. We got to choose who we wanted to do the project on and I can’t remember exactly why, but I wanted to do Martin Luther King Junior. At the time I would probably only have known of him from a few TV shows, or snippets of documentaries. The internet wasn’t what it is today, so, if it wasn’t on terrestrial TV, you didn’t watch it. My father always talked about history and historical figures, and spent some time in the States before I was born, so maybe I heard a bit about MLK from him. Whatever the motivation was, all I know is I wanted to know more about him.
I remember being so confused as a child about what racism was. It didn’t make sense to me. I mean, the concept didn’t make sense to me. I was curious as to why MLK had to do so much to obtain equal rights for black people in America. And I was so confused as to why he was assassinated. My parents raised me with the strict understanding that you must respect everyone, and everyone is equal to everyone else, no matter their abilities, religion, race, gender, sexuality, social status or so on. I now know, of course, that racists are created when stupidity and ignorance intersect, and there is little point in trying to figure it out any more than that, because there is no excuse, there is no reason, there is no justification for being racist.
As a child, my understanding of the world was rather black and white: there were good people and bad people. Good people had little to worry about because they were good. And bad people had to worry about the police, and judges, and going to prison. In my eyes, MLK was a good person, so I had no concept of why anyone would want to hurt him when he had only campaigned to do good things. Again, it didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t comprehend it.
Using encyclopedias (yes, they really did exist) and the limited internet available in school, I learned all I could about MLK for my project and composed my report. I remember one kid in my class, I can’t remember who though, making some sort of remark about my project topic. It wasn’t very nice, and I remember feeling sad at time because it was the first time in my life I had witnessed someone I know, in real life, making a racist remark.
Before starting my research, I really only knew the line of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech that everybody else knew. I read the whole speech for that project. I was mesmerized by the language used, the intellect, the passion, and have been ever since.
MLK was a true leader, and one who knew that pacifism was the route by which he would achieve the change he was seeking. A few parts of that speech stood out to me as a child. The first was this paragraph from his speech:
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. 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 stood out in my mind, in particular the last sentence. Here was a man who was facing state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination. A man whose community had been brutalized by police for, essentially, the crime of protesting while black, and had water-cannons turned on them and he was telling these people: don’t be bitter or hate-filled. The strength of this man’s moral-character was stunning to me as a child, and remains to me today.
The second thing that stood-out in my mind was his reference to the little black boys and black girls joining hands with all the little white boys and white girls; it was the first time I really began to understand what racial segregation was, what it meant, and what it caused. I was startled to learn that, not too long before that, in the USA, white people and black people used different drinking fountains, different schools, and were governed by very different rules of engagement in social situations.
As early as the mid-1950s, King had received death threats as a result of his prominence in the Civil Rights Movement. He had confronted the risk of death numerous times in his life, including an almost fatal stabbing in 1958. He taught that murder could not stop the struggle for equal rights. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, King told his wife Coretta: "This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society." King was prescient in his prediction.
On April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, King was shot. He was rushed to St Joseph's Hospital, and was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm. James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested on June 8, 1968, in London at Heathrow Airport, he was extradited to the United States, and charged with the crime. On March 10, 1969, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99-years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary.
Reading about MLK’s assassination, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that he knew it was coming, maybe he didn’t know exactly when, but he knew that it was coming. He knew that he was going to be killed because racism ran deep in some people in his “sick society” and his peaceful means of social rebellion were being all too effective. But he kept campaigning, he kept going, undeterred by serious threats of violence and death. My innocent child’s mind thought at that time - how bad were things in America, at that time, that he was willing to die for the cause of equality and freedom? I mean, this Baptist Minister from Atlanta, Georgia, inspired black people and white people to stand up together against the state, to ensure all people had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
He didn’t derogate or deride those who opposed his views, he was smarter than that. He didn’t threaten them, or oppress them, because he knew what it was to be threatened and oppressed. He tried to inspire them to see the error of their ways and educate them of the fundamental rights which should be inherent in all people, to quote Dr King: “God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics”, it didn’t matter, because they were all human beings.
MLK inspired me as a child, and his legacy continues to inspire me today. I hope his legacy can also inspire activists fighting for various causes today, to not rely on violence and slurs in order to support their points of view. I hope his legacy can inspire todays activists to use the intellect in their heads and not the threats of their fists, to achieve their goals.
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