A few days ago on January 15, 2010, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 81 years old. In the 42 years since his death, his influence on the world has waned, grown, waned again, and grown again. In the 1970s, the Civil Rights movement continued as children were bused from one part of a town to another. In 1983, a holiday celebrating his birth was passed and signed into law and began in 1986. U2 would release a song filled with factually inaccuracies but still became as anthemic as his voice. In 1991, George H. Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which strengthened Civil Rights Laws and provided for damages in case of employment discrimination. Rodney King’s Trials sparked the riots in Los Angeles in 1992. In the 2000s, the University of Michigan’s policy on race for law school admission was upheld by the Supreme Court. In 2005, Rosa Parks passed away and her body lied in state in the Capitol rotunda. In 2006, Coretta Scott King would pass away. The murderers of Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney, and Medgar Evers would all come to justice, and in 2008, an American of African descent was elected President.
King’s, however, was not as profound initially on the movement outside of the South. The Montgomery Bus Boycott came along by accident. For King, he was newly a minted Ph.D. in town from Boston University in 1955. The precise reason he was chosen to lead the boycott was that he was new and the leaders of the town would little about him. Over the next year, King would lead the boycott and became the face and voice of the civil rights movement. His eloquence and calmness inspired a generation of Americans to fight back against segregation through non-violent means. Inspired by Jesus and Gandhi, King and the SCLC challenged the segragationists in the streets and in the courts.
All through out the South over the next ten years, the non-violent passive resistance movement spread to not only include boycotts, but sit-ins, marches, freedom rides. From Memphis to Greensboro to Birmingham and even Selma, Alabama. Television helped sway many across the country to sympathize with the treatment of African-Americans in the South.
Three days before my birth, Dr. King was at the height of his prominence. His speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is considered a classic in American History.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.
I have a dream today!
In the north, King’s views were not welcomed. In fact, other leaders and other movements began to spring up. The Black Panthers had taken a foothold in Oakland. A young Muslim minister, only a few years older than MLK, had captured a nation’s attention in New York City only to be gunned down in 1965.
While Malcolm X was not as initially influential, his message “By Any Means Necessary” would rise again in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The cpmpeteing visions on how best to achieve equality still continue today despite the election of Obama.
Shortly after King’s speech, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. But this did not stop King. He turned his attention to other matters to continue the movement. As President Johnson began his war on Poverty, so too did Dr. King. In 1966, he began to take his message north to the North. In Chicago to protest Public Housing conditions and regulations, King was actually hit by a brick during a March. He would eventually return south without having achieved much. He left a young Jesse Jackson in charge.
It was also during this time that King began to not only speak for Civil Rights, but he also began to speak out against Vietnam. His words were taken as subversive by many. in 1968, he took his words and message, as part of his “Poor Peoples Campaign”, to Memphis to back and help support striking garbage workers. In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The night before, he delivered his last speech. His language spoke of one who did not expect to live long past the night.
In the years since, his words and deeds have far outlived the measure of the man. While a holiday is celebrated today, King’s influence can be felt around the world. From Africa to Asia to South America to Europe, anywhere there is oppression, one will find the words and methods of Dr. King on display. But it wasn’t always so. For a good many years, King’s influence had faded during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the civil rights movement had inspired every other movement from Cesar Chavez to Women’s rights to the elderly, within black communities, King was not the man. His stance of using non-violence was seen as not going far enough. Similar to debates between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, King’s vision and legacy competed with Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and many more throughout the North.
As events unfolded in the 1980s, King’s legacy began to weaken even more. By the time of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” was released in 1989, Malcolm X had taken over and continued to grow until after Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1992. But in the years since, King’s vision has gained momentum. A national holiday has helped. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until 2000 that every state celebrated the holiday. John McCain actually voted against its passage in 1983 only to change his mind. In Utah, it was known as Human Rights Day until 2000.
As this day unfold, one cannot deny the legacy of how King changed the nation and the world. As a history teacher, I spend about about two weeks covering the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Every child knows the speeches. Every child knows the dream. America is better for the time he spent here. To them, they do not see a black man, or a white man, but a man who fought for his rights the only way he knew how…. by the words of God, in the name of love…