Column: Dr Martin Luther King’s Story

January 14, 2020

[Opinion column written by Glenn Fubler]

Martin Luther King’s birthday – January 15th – offers an opportunity to reflect on his intrinsic qualities. MLK asked us to ignore surface matters but consider content of their character.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the iconic Montgomery Bus Boycott. King’s oratory and humility helped galvanize that movement, initiating a paradigm shift across America and beyond. MLK’s humility was grounded in his understanding that “everyone can make a difference.”

In fact, King’s movement introduction resulted from the extraordinary courage of a 15-year-old student on March 2, 1955 in Montgomery. Nine months prior to Rosa Parks’ historic stand, teenager Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat and was arrested. Activist E.D. Nixon pulled together an ad hoc group to strategize a response. This included veteran lawyer Clifford Durr and his mentee Fred Gray, as well as a new minister in Montgomery, Martin King.

Given the terrorizing presence of the KKK in Montgomery, the bold action of the teen inspired the community. Within months three other women – including another teen – repeated her bravery. Fred Gray attempted a legal strategy. Given the circumstances, it was decided to hold on launching a campaign.

That said, Claudette Colvin and those others had reminded their community that everyone can make a difference. They laid the groundwork for Rosa Parks’ iconic stand on December 1, 1955.

That heroism led E.D. Nixon to mobilize his contacts and Montgomery’s clergy. Independently, women teachers secretly distributed leaflets announcing a bus boycott. Having been inspired and reminded that he could make a difference, King agreed to chair the campaign. With humility and an understanding of the status quo, MLK appreciated that the movement should include everyone.

The chord struck in Montgomery even mobilized a few whites. Since few blacks owned vehicles for car-pooling, sustaining the boycott became a logistical nightmare. Some support came from out-of-town; notably from Harry Belafonte and Stanley Levison from New York.

As the boycott gained traction, police and official bureaucracy undermined momentum. Eventually terror struck with the bombing of King’s home on January 30, 1956. Subsequently 90 boycott leaders were arrested.

These tactics further galvanized campaigners. Fred Gray initiated court action with Claudette Colvin and the other three as plaintiffs. The historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling was implemented on December 20, 1956 after a 385-day boycott, demonstrating that everyone can make a difference.

After Montgomery’s success, the movement formalized as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]. Independent actions popped up.

Students staged sit ins at segregated facilities across the South. By 1961, black and white students – Freedom Riders – from universities across America traveled on interstate buses challenging Jim Crow.

The SCLC assisted a Birmingham campaign in April 1963 with direct-action. Scores of volunteers were arrested. When MLK’s imprisonment didn’t bear results, hundreds of school children joined the campaign, overflowing jails.

Police Chief ‘Bull’ O’Connor pre-empted those peaceful protesters with fire hoses and dogs, resulting in iconic media pictures. The next day, further crowds appeared peacefully in Birmingham and when ordered to turn on fire hoses, officers refused. They remembered that everyone can make a difference.

This loss resulted in a late-night bombing of MLK’s brother’s home [A.D. King]. Fortunately, the seven family members escaped serious injury and A.D. led the efforts, calming the hundreds enraged by the cowardice. He repeated this when the motel in which MLK had stayed was also bombed.

In the mass meeting following this violence, King addressed the polarising impulse to restore spirits in the face of the grave challenges: “…this is not a struggle between black people and white people…this is a struggle between justice and injustice.”

MLK’s affirmation manifested within days in Ohio during a series of rallies coordinated by the Episcopal [Anglican] Bishop. Rallies included mostly white parishioners amongst more than 10,000 attendees over a 12-hour period. Significant movement funds were raised, demonstrating ‘everyone can make a difference’.

Later that summer, King shared his dream.

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year prior to his assassination, King demonstrated his substantial integrity in a historic speech at New York’s Riverside Church. MLK disregarded advice from some Civil Rights colleagues fearful of opposing the U.S. Government’s Vietnam War policy. King’s call for peace addressed the big picture and the human family’s interconnectedness, confirming that everyone can make a difference.

- Glenn Fubler


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