In June 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., first uttered his ‘dream’ to 500,000 onlookers at the Great March on Detroit. He summed up the social movement this way: “we want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.” First bellowed in Detroit and made famous two months later in Washington, D.C., the dream has been recorded as one of the greatest speeches ever. At age 34, King changed the world. But the dream began much earlier. Beginning at the age of 26, Dr. King did what most consider an impossibility – he devoted his life to seriously eradicating injustice. And, what’s really interesting, is that older people in the Montgomery, Alabama community where King got his start trusted a younger person with that powerful role of leader. How often does that happen today? How many young people have tried to introduce an initiative, lead a change or just make something happen and it’s the older people who place the roadblocks in their way?
Young people and older leaders working together is what made a successful movement. It must be stated that we likely would not honor King had it not been for E.D. Nixon. Without Nixon’s insurgence, the nation would not know Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement’s beginnings would have been written so drastically differently. It was Nixon who helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail and solicited the help of white liberal lawyers when she landed in jail. An organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a long time member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), it was because of his foresight that we honor King’s birthday - as he thought people would pay attention to Parks’ arrest because of her relationship to the NAACP; he thought that it would be good to capitalize on the opportunity to start a boycott.
It was E. D. Nixon who called Martin Luther King, Jr. to ask whether or not the first boycott meetings might be held at his church. Nixon looked to King to lead the meetings because King, a new Montgomery resident, had not been around the community enough to have been intimidated by the white power structure as had many other longstanding black figures. Nixon’s efforts demonstrate what makes movements spark – one person somewhere in concert with others chooses to make a difference.
And there are more stories and more stories of young people like King striving and dying for freedom. Stories of American youth singing and clinging for their lives as a result of the impact the movement had on them. It was the young people who organized and led the Black Panther Party. It was the young people, encouraged by older supporters like E.D. Nixon and Ella Baker, who developed and led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was the young people who were often the marching backbone during events organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was the young people who integrated the Topeka Kansas School System, Little Rock’s Central High and the University of Mississippi. It was the young people who carried King’s dream from Detroit to Chicago to Washington and all over this country. Young people like Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and Huey Newton. All people affected by King’s role as a mover of people in the movement for millions. Some criticized his consistent nonviolence, others lamented at the presumed slow pace toward freedom, still others cheered King for his defiance of the white power structure and his insistence in pressing on through house bombings, police billy-clubbing and multiple arrests – no matter their view of King, all respected him. Even Malcolm came around.
Each of these players and others so unnamed are important because they are the leaders King praised from his pulpit, they are the fallen whom King eulogized at cemeteries. Many are in fact the few who King shared tactics and plans with. We should know them because King’s movements – the bellowing voice through the airwaves and his gentle footsteps mile after mile - are so well known to us today, and were in large part successful because of them, the young supporters of his dream. Thus, the federal holiday in honor of King, is not solely about the man and his efforts. It is about that. But the federal holiday is also about the leadership coalition King was able to directly inspire and indirectly manage.
I encourage us all to seriously consider the life of the man we celebrate and honor this month, who became a leader when called upon, who saw a need of the people and fill it, who became a spokesperson for a local crisis and eventually a global movement. Consider, as he did, that your intellectual studies of whatever genre may not solve the many burning questions in your head concerning what you can do about advocating freedom and justice and equity today. But, if you step into the ring, onto the court, onto the saddle of life, by your practical action, by living through the actual experience of your efforts, you will lead a life, as Plato reminds, that is worth living. You will live a life, as King highlighted, that is “fit to live” because you would have found “something worth dying for.” You will live your life. Because, in the end that’s all you have. As, James Baldwin once stated, “People pay for what they do and still more for what they have become, and they pay for it simply by the lives they lead.” Therefore, it is my hope that as we celebrate King’s birthday, we go out into the world and share the dream to make real those promises of democracy of old, share the dream to make justice a reality for all (not some), share the dream for freedom and jobs for the disadvantaged (not just the advantaged), share the dream that civil rights and human rights are not idealistic waves of thunderous vocabulary glamour. No, civil and human rights are the doctrine for doers who choose to live the reality that everyone is created equal.
As we pause to honor a movement and a man named King who made it so, let’s make sure our homage is worthy of those, including King, we have lost along the way on this road toward equity and freedom. Let us not forget about their toils and struggles, their difficulties, their blood, pain and anguish as King Celebrations and Black History month concludes. Rather, let us, especially the young, learn from them. It’s up to us to secure jobs and freedom from the disadvantaged. It’s up to us to make sure every person enjoys the benefits of every right. It’s up to us to pick up the torch and work to edify King’s dream for future generations. It’s up to us. It’s up to you.