By Naomi “Bez” Zebro (He/They)
Today Martin Luther King Jr. is a civil rights icon. But his path to becoming a such a legendary historical figure was filled with just as much white supremacist terror and rage as those taking up the mantle of combating systemic racism today.
The pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King was a leader in nonviolent protest, fighting for the equality of Black Americans across the U.S. An eloquent speaker, he is perhaps most famous for his “I Have A Dream” speech which he gave during the March On Washington. One of his most memorable and often quoted lines from it is this:
“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.”
But Dr. King was more than a dreamer. He always worked toward a future where people’s character was more important than the color of their skin, where Black and White Americans world be treated equally, and where even in the most racist places, freedom and justice would prevail for every person. He led many campaigns for equality: the bus boycott in Montgomery, sit-ins in Atlanta, a justice campaign in Birmingham and a voting rights campaign in Selma, among many others.
But Dr. King’s efforts weren’t seen as positive at the time. It wasn’t only by the white supremacists throughout the campaign areas in the deeply and at that time, proudly segregated South, however. The FBI investigated Dr. King non-stop. And the director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover even considered him a radical. Because of this, his movements were recorded and he was investigated thoroughly by COINTELPRO, an FBI organization centered on investigating domestic movements.
And there were also many White Americans not living in visibly segregated areas in the Deep South who saw Dr. King and his efforts as a disruption to their peaceful lives and wanted him to leave well enough alone. Today we recognize their reaction as white privilege in action. It’s the societal privilege that enables people with white skin to maintain the status quo, to dismiss something morally and ethically wrong because it’s not happening to them and they’re not willing to take action to change the situation.
However, Dr. King’s fight for equality didn’t stop because of government investigations nor of white anger or discomfort. He continued working for the equality and acceptance of Black people despite being arrested and receiving threatening letters, messages and bomb threats. Increasingly worried about the growing economic inequality in the U.S., Dr. King had arrived in Memphis on April 3, 1968 to support a strike by sanitation workers. At 6:05 p.m. on April 7, while standing on the balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was assassinated, shot by James Earl Ray. Dr. King was only 39-years old.
His assassination sent shock waves throughout the U.S. that led to riots around the country. In the aftermath, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation in making Sunday, April 7 as a day of national mourning for Martin Luther King Jr. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush declared that King’s January 15 birthday would become a federal holiday to ensure that all men and women are treated equally. We now celebrate Dr. King’s birthday on the third Monday of January each year.
Others have continued his legacy, including his wife, Coretta Scott King and his four children, Yolanda, Martin, Dexter and Bernice, although Coretta died in 2006 and Yolanda, the eldest child died in 2007. All have served at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change which was founded by Coretta. Bernice King is active on social media and speaks out against racism, discrimination and President’s Trump’s rhetoric. Organizations like Black Lives Matter have also taken up Dr. King’s fight for equality, protesting against the deaths of Black Americans by police.
It is a time to continue the non-violent legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and work for equality for all Americans, not just those with white skin. This can be done in many forms, from speaking out on social media to writing to our congresspeople to going out and protesting. Dr. King’s campaign for equality is not over – it’s time to take up the mantle!