Beyond Greatness

Some may argue that a person is made or broken in her or his formative years. The events of one’s childhood play such a monumental role in defining who one becomes later it is easy to see the truth in the statement.

Martin Luther King, Jr, was born Michael King, Jr. on Jan 25th, 1929. In 1934 the Reverend Michael King, Sr. took a church trip to holy centers around the Mediterranean-Rome, Tunisia, Egypt, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It ended touring sites associated with Martin Luther in Berlin, Germany. It was here where Michael King saw firsthand the rise of the Nazis and the racial hatred accompanying it. In reaction, the members of the conference released a statement:

“This Congress deplores and condemns as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward coloured people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”

When he returned home, Michael changed his and his son’s names to Martin Luther King.

It was Martin Sr. who gave his son an interest in protest. He would often refuse to move to “colored” sections of a store, and once organized a march to protest voting rights discrimination in Atlanta.

Martin took an active interest at an early age in expanding his vocabulary, and was constantly harvesting the dictionary for more intelligent words. Typically, he showed no interest in grammar or spelling “rules,” only vocabulary.

He did well in school and was accepted early into the World War II depleted Moorehouse College. Martin Jr. decided to become a Reverend, believing he would be a..minister whose sermons would be a force for ideas or even, he hoped, social change.

His father, who, he said, had always been “a real father” to him, instilled in Martin a conviction that he might know the difference between right and wrong and also the strength needed to choose the wiser path.

Around this time in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus, and King used this injustice to move in with some trusted, like-minded men to organize a boycott of the bus company. For these actions King’s house was bombed.

In Atlanta (Oct. 1960) he was sentenced to four months of hard labor in a maximum security prison for a sit in he took part in to protest the segregation of businesses and public places, and only escaped this fate because future President Kennedy pressured the governor. In Albany, Georgia (1960), he was sentenced to more jail time, and was only freed because the Reverend Billy Graham bailed him out. In Birmingham (1963), he was arrested for the 13th out of 29 times. In St. Augustine, Florida, (1964) they ran into counterdemonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan. In Chicago (1966) he was hit with a brick trying to combat racial steering in real estate offices there. 

He was always, if you’ll remember, an unarmed man merely trying to voice his right to speak. 

By the time 1963 rolled around, King was already the star of the Civil Rights movement. In August of that year the March on Washington was organized to end racial segregation in public schools, to demand meaningful civil rights legislation, among other things. The march was a resounding success, and helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

By 1964-65, King was on top of the world, as much as such a thing may be possible and still be hit by a thrown brick. However, change was brewing. African-American leaders in general were under constant pressure from each other, their own followers, and of course white America.

The movements had all enjoyed an incredible amount of progress, yet it was still impossible to be content with the results. There was still so much injustice to fight. As Martin said:

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.””

“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for [our] rights. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.. who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods..”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom..and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

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These quotes reveal more than they let on. Because of his stance on the Vietnam War, he lost white support, including that of the President and Billy Graham. Also, reading between the lines, listening closely, you can still, after all these years, hear the bullets being fed into chambers and weapons being cocked.

All of the dangers he braved and the costs he paid were grave and steep indeed. 

After his death the true cost of his struggles was revealed: all of the vicious and violent attacks he endured breaking down the barriers white America erected turned his 39-year-old heart into that of a 60-year-old.

So why did he do it? This life is so much more enjoyable when one doesn’t try to change anything, least of all oneself. You get to eat whatever junk you like, say foolish things, spend all of your days without wasting any time or energy powering one’s brain. 

That is all fine and good if one is truly content. Few are, however, and that begets the need for change. Progress without change is not possible, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything (George Bernard Shaw). Martin saw recognized the need, and this need evolved into a very special dream.

What is so wrong about a life where our lives are more important than the profit motive or the GNP? What is so so wrong about a world where every person is afforded the same chances of success as everyone else? What is so wrong in not wanting to see black men’s necks kneeled upon for 8 minutes and 46 seconds? Martin saw it all and warned us over 50 years ago. Is it so difficult to actually do something about it? Now we live in the age Beyond Greatness; it is time to do Martin’s wonderful dream justice and make peace together, for the good of all.

I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream …”

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