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Martin Luther King Jr. struggles

By Jim Killebrew

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[January 20, 2014]  The time was the 1960s and the world seemed in turmoil. The country was gearing up for a war it did not want, poverty was staggering in the United States amid one of the richest countries in the world, and black citizens were still treated as second-class citizens, especially in the South. 1954 had brought a Supreme Court decision that was to end school segregation, but that edict had not been heeded by those in the South 

John Fraser Hart wrote in 1967 in his book "The Southeastern United States: "The attitude of most Southerners, when they contemplated the future of their region, was compounded with hope and fear.  Their hope was for rapid industrial development that would change the retarded rural South to modern cities. Their fear was the necessity of accepting the practice of racial equality. These hopes and fears were both interrelated, for cities are centers of change, and the growth of cities would bring increased pressures for integration."

So on Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, where he said the promises that had been given a hundred years before had been broken.

He said: "But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition."

Dr. King's call for justice continued. His insight had come from personal experience through the suffering of injustice and broken promises.

He continued: "In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the 'unalienable Rights' of 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"

Echoing that call for justice, much evidence had been laid on the foundation of the "defaulted promissory note" Dr. King had described.

John A. Hannah, author of "Public Education" (1964), issued a staff report indicating that "with the close of the 1963-64 school year, 10 years after the Supreme Court's decision in the School Segregation Cases, just a small portion over nine percent of the Negro children in the Southern and Border States were attending public schools with White students."

Hannah continued: "In the year 1963-64, there were 181 school districts in the 17 States which admitted Negro pupils to White schools for the first time, the largest number added in any year since 1956-57, the third school year after the Supreme Court's decision. On a regional basis, 19.7 percent of the school districts in the 11 Southern States had started the desegregation process, whereas 92.4 percent of the school districts in the Border States were desegregated in some degree. Two states, South Carolina and Alabama, experienced their first desegregation below the college level when schools opened in September 1963. Mississippi was the only state maintaining completely segregated elementary and secondary schools in 1963-64."

One governor, George Wallace in Alabama, was defiant toward integration. Robert Sherrill, author of "Gothic Politics in the Deep South (1969)," had quoted George Wallace in 1962: "I shall refuse to abide by any illegal federal court order, even to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door in person." Of course everyone now knows that is exactly what he did.

On Sept. 9, 1963, President Kennedy issued a statement in which he accused the governor (Wallace) of trying to provoke federal government intervention. The president charged that the governor's actions were motivated by personal and political reasons. He said the governor knew that the United States government must carry out court orders, and that most citizens of the four cities involved were willing to face the difficult transition with the same courage and respect for law shown by communities in neighboring states. Kennedy said that the government would do whatever was necessary to see that federal orders to desegregate public schools were carried out in Alabama, but added his hope that the governor would allow local officials and communities to meet their responsibilities in this regard.

Robert Sherrill, author of "Gothic Politics in the Deep South, 1969" wrote: "The stage was set at the University of Alabama. Sherrill painted a perfect picture of a political George Wallace at work."

Reporting in Sherrill's "Gothic Politics" says: "George Wallace was given a podium and microphone to make his speech, in front of the television cameras. As Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach approached, Wallace held up his hand like a traffic cop, the Governor and Katzenbach began to talk. Later, the temporarily federalized National Guard general stepped in, as Wallace saluted him, and announced it was his 'sad duty' to have to take over from the Governor. Wallace, at that point, consoled him by saying, 'I know this is a bitter pill ...' At that point, Wallace stepped aside to surrender, not to the federal government, but to a Southern soldier acting under duress.'"

These were the politics of George Wallace.

This was the segregation that existed in the Southern schools. The attitudes of the leaders of the South, and the people who lived there, was to keep the South segregated. They wanted regional growth and larger cities with more industry, but they feared integration.

Dr. King encountered pressures and opposition from many sources. The opposition even came from fellow preachers and pastors. They were complaining that he was moving too fast in trying to gain equality, justice and integration.

From his perspective, the country had moved too slowly.

From his jail cell in the city of Birmingham, Ala., Dr. King wrote: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"  Martin Luther King Jr., April 16, 1963, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

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As Dr. King stood amid that giant crowd in Washington, D.C., that day, his mind may have gone back to the leaders of the church who had pierced his efforts with criticism and cries to "wait."

He continued his speech: "There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'"  (This quote from the Bible: Amos 5:24, American Standard Version)

Our remembrance of Dr. King rings in our ears and echoes in our minds each time we remember the man and his work. With all the struggles he faced as he delivered the check to America to cash it in for all Americans who want to be free, his legacy remains forever embedded in our collective memory as we rehearse the monumental work he did for all humanity. It can be summed up by his own words as he ended his speech in Washington.  Read those words again and remember a great man, his struggles and his dreams.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

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!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."  (Isaiah 40:4-5, KJV) This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day  this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

"My country, 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!"

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

"Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" 

Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream," Aug. 28, 1963, Washington, D.C.


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