Over the next few months, I will post a photo of each panel, grouping them together as Martin Luther King quotations, accessible from the index on the right.
Here is the first of 12 quotations from the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr, inscribed on granite panels forming a semi-circle behind the statue that will be unveiled this Sunday, as a memorial to the civil rights leader. This quote was taken from King's book Strength to Love, published in 1963.
Over the next few months, I will post a photo of each panel, grouping them together as Martin Luther King quotations, accessible from the index on the right.
During the weekend Hurricane Irene came for a visit, we walked among the stones that make up the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington DC. Hoping to attend the dedication, we joined hundreds at the newly opened site one evening as the sun set and clouds thickened, then went back early the next morning, just as the storm moved in.
Wisely, the organizers postponed the dedication in advance of Irene, moving it to Sunday, October 16. The morning program will be free and open to the public. See http://bit.ly/nQ3JPm for information.
King’s fraternity brothers in Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans, initiated the concept of his memorial, then created the foundation that ultimately paid for and built the project 25 years later. The complex of three major stones anchored by a semi-circular wall of memorable quotations, sits along a northwest section of the water facing the Jefferson Memorial. The memorial towers over cherry trees that usually bloom in early April, which happens to be the time of King’s death in 1968. This location will put the memorial in the path of millions from around the globe who visit DC to celebrate spring’s beauty. What a fitting way to commemorate King’s contribution to this nation, with beauty and respect! The memorial team says it best:
His vision of America is captured in his message of hope and possibility for a future anchored in dignity, sensitivity, and mutual respect; a message that challenges each of us to recognize that America's true strength lies in its diversity of talents … The vision of a memorial in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one that captures the essence of his message … freedom, democracy and opportunity for all.
Personally, I was moved by the 12 quotations etched in granite along the walkway behind the statue. I plan to post photos of each quotation on this blog, one at a time, for your contemplation.
You can walk among the various pieces of sculpture freely. No tickets are involved, but parking and/or Metro stops are a hike away. Look at it this way: the fairly lengthy walk gives you time to think about what you’re doing and why you’re there.
When you visit, expect to see or even shed a few tears. Listen closely as grandparents explain to their young who and what this man was. Don’t be surprised if people whisper because the site’s tomb-quality tends to have that effect on visitors.
While we were there, people of all races talked to each other, sharing pride and gratitude for the legacy King left us. They volunteered to take photos of each other, commemorating the moment. That’s the way it should be.
My only hope is that young people find a way to get close to Dr. King, in their own way. Since they won’t have the benefit we had of learning about him first- or even second-hand, I hope they read Letters from a Birmingham Jail or transcripts of King’s most important speeches.
For those of us who shared some of the same time on earth with this man, he’s a giant, albeit a human one. There could not be a better time to find a hero to anchor one's life on, nor could there be a better anchor than Martin Luther King.
Don’t be too shocked when you see the enormity of his statue. Although imposing, someone who related as well to garbage collectors as he did to royalty may have preferred being portrayed on a more human scale, putting him closer to eye level. Nonetheless, the statue is quite imposing, almost majestic. I’m not sure I like the expression the artist chose for his face, but it’s one of strength and determination, and that’s not a bad way to be remembered.
Note: All photos are mine. Ask for permission to reprint.
While war and rebellion have raged across the globe these last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. That is, thinking not exactly what King would have done at a time like this, but why King’s message resonated when it did, and still does today.
A bright and focused student, King skipped two grades of high school and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15. That means he graduated at 19 or so, then entered seminary. No sooner had he taken his first church assignment (in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954), than he began work on a doctorate in theology at Boston University.
The early Fifties were halcyon days for liberal Protestant religious thought. World War II was behind us, and man’s future looked bright. The only things eating us from the inside out – besides the bomb -- were poverty, segregation, and rampant inequities in an otherwise burgeoning country still basking in the glory of having ended the war.
Graduate work drew King to Boston in 1955, the year liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich -- one of his major influences-- joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School. Another of King's heroes, liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was also in the area. Niebuhr once blasted white Protestants for giving birth and sustenance to the Ku Klux Klan, saying "I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people's sins. Let us repent of our own. .... We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments."
Black theologian Howard Thurman, a friend of King’s father who lived in Boston, was chaplain at BU and happy to take his friend’s son under his wing. Thurman told King about meeting Mahatma Gandhi a decade or so earlier in India, while he was a missionary. The older clergyman encouraged his protégée to study Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, so King went to India in 1959.
While there, King wrote: "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
That trip gave King energy to push a fledgling civil rights movement, forward. Between 1955 and 1965, King would apply Gandhi's principles, as well as Christian theology, as he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, tested Jim Crow laws up and down the South, led the March on Washington in 1963 and the March to Montgomery in 1965. Later, he expanded his support to the anti-war movement and economic justice before he was assassinated in 1968.
I never met the man or heard him speak, except on television and radio, and, although I admired his courage and commitment, I didn’t like everything he said or did. Martin Luther King was no saint. He had women in his life other than wife Coretta. Long after receiving his doctorate, he was accused of plagiarizing portions of his dissertation. Some close to him called him vain, competitive, stubborn and careless about his personal safety. (In other words, he was human!) Black Power advocates derided him, saying he was more interested in integration than in strengthening the autonomy of his own race. He lost friends in Washington, the media and unions when he came out against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Even so, no one could fault Martin Luther King for his commitment to the poor and abused, of any race or background. In this, he was steadfast to the end, in spite of incarceration, death threats and numerous attempts on his life. I don’t recall ever hearing him mention it publicly, but it must have been difficult for him to live with the knowledge that he had blood on his hands because many who followed his call for action, suffered mightily.
Still, he had a tremendous impact on the path this country took during his lifetime and for decades beyond. He had an equally strong impact on the lives of individuals, including this one. For a time before 1965, the world rested on King’s every word. People either loved him or hated him; there was no in-between.
Like the story of David and Goliath, King and his followers were mighty. They forced states to change laws that had been on the books for 100 years. They altered a nation’s perception of race and justice in a diverse society. In a way, King’s legacy may have outstripped his personal accomplishments, because the momentum he set in motion 45 years ago, is evident today.
I think the man was a genius but am afraid, if were alive today, he would fail to meet the level of scrutiny we insist on for our leaders. His genius was in transposing the simple truths of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance in India and Jesus' exhortation to turn the other cheek, to a workable plan for a society born and raised on violence.
As a Christian clergyman, King harnessed the power of religious beliefs to show fellow believers how to turn moral tenets into reality, in the form of laws affecting daily life, especially those affecting access to public accommodations and the voting booth. People already knew what was right and wrong, they just didn't know how to express it. King gave them the tools and pointed the way.
By adhering to non-violent actions, his followers believed they had “God on their side” and, so, would prevail. And, they did.
King was not the only individual responsible for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, but he certainly was a prime mover.
Few leaders understood as well as he did the importance and dignity of ordinary people, black or white. Early in his short life, King vowed to do all he could to make their lives better. By the mid-1960s he was teaching hundreds, then thousands and finally millions of other ordinary people – including a host of college students (like me), long-time activists and clergy of all backgrounds – how to play very small roles in an enormous theater.
The work of those involved in the US civil rights movement wasn’t easy and certainly wasn't pretty. Through training, organization and discipline, King empowered the powerless by incorporating them into large, committed but peaceful groups. He showed the world that, under the right circumstances, ordinary folk can overturn laws, up-end nations and change the expected course of history, just as we see happening today in the Middle East.
For more on this topic, go here For a look at my own memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, go to this group of stories.
By 1968, what was once radical -- i.e., principles of non-violent action, as exemplified by the work of Gandhi and King -- had proven to be a viable means of social change. At that point, non-violence lost its radical cachet and became more or less mainstream. By 1968, the only thing left for radicals was violence or at least the threat of violence, and that wasn't Martin Luther King's message, at all.
King's success proved violence wasn't necessary to affect change. Non-violent protest funneled power into the weak, and turned those who held onto Jim Crow as villains. When protestors couldn’t be riled, they were the perfect foil for exposing the true character of those who spat, shouted obscenities, raised their fists, or worse. Let the American people decide, who has more courage? Who is in the right? The one who speaks politely, is respectful and when faced with aggression turns the other cheek, or the one who hides behind dogs and billyclubs?
Thanks mostly to Dr. King, non-violence brought this country positive change in the form of rights protected by enforceable law, and opportunities for growth that have led to attitudinal change in places we never expected. That's not to say his work is done, by any means, but without the changes he set in motion, it's frightening to imagine where this country might be today.
On the other hand, the threat of violence as espoused by the radical left and right, brought us tighter security, restrictions and paranoia. Again, we reap what we sow, for better or worse.
Dr. King took young and old, black and white, and taught us the impact an individual can have on history. While it was all going on, it was hard to gauge where it would all end. For me, looking backward, I’m amazed at how much progress was made in such a short time, but also dismayed that there’s still so much left undone.
Young people looking for a niche in activism today should know the door is still open to those who want to get involved. Pick your issue and get to work! Just look around and follow your passion. Are you concerned about the environment, or disparities in health or education? Are you ready to advocate for the arts, the homeless or the aged? Find others with the same interests, and get to work!
Several weeks ago, I was thrilled to be part of a group of people recognized in Springfield, Massachusetts for civil rights activities we took part in decades ago, either in the Freedom Rides of 1961 and other protests. Several Freedom Riders recounted horrific tales and – as you can probably tell from the photo -- I felt honored to be standing among them.
Western New England public television station WGBY, in conjunction with the Springfield Public Forum, hosted a preview of the upcoming documentary, Freedom Riders, produced by WGBH-Boston and scheduled to air on public television stations nationwide on May 16. Don’t miss it!
In the meantime, you might want to check out their website, which is full of interactive information, including the mugshots of those arrested during the Freedom Rides. (Not me, I was able to avoid jail.) I thought it was wonderful that those photos are now seen as badges of honor. At last!
For Part I of this post, go here. For a look at my own memories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, go to this group of stories.
Today, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I’ve decided to celebrate by taking a look back at the work he’s known for, although this complex man excelled on many platforms.
No one can dispute the importance of Martin Luther King to the US civil rights movement. He was its guiding star and its most revered martyr.
Through King’s example and his teachings, hundreds of thousands of ordinary and unknown people pushed the movement ahead with a myriad of simple acts of personal, peaceful protest. Ultimately, they got legislation they wanted, acknowledging and guaranteeing civil rights on many – but not all – fronts. If those folk are still around, they know who they are, and we know they can’t help but think of those difficult days every year about this time, then again in April and August.
Although the US still has a long way to go to reach justice and equality for all, much has happened since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our children and our grandchildren would find it difficult to believe what life was like for black people less than 50 years ago, when King was alive and pursuing his dream. But, I remember and so do many Birds readers, so I believe it's important to share those memories.
For an expanded essay on King’s life and the impact he had on the US, go here and then here to Some Thoughts on the Legacy of MLK, parts 1 and 2.
If you remember, won't you share your stories, too? Please hit Comments above, and leave them for all to read. You don't need to leave your email address.
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m republishing six short pieces I ran last year about civil rights and early 1960s sit ins. Maybe they will show you how Martin Luther Kind figured into the lives of those who were young in the 1960s.
Four posts are about life in and around Washington DC before the 1964 CRA, including a collection of my own memories. One of the four includes some incredible news footage of demonstrators trying to exert their right to eat or shop where they wanted. Music and prayer were integral parts of all the demonstrations I went to, so I’ve included a link to relevant music, performed recently by a few icons of the movement. The last post takes you to a collection of art saluting all civil rights leaders as real icons.
It’s a good day to remember Martin Luther King Jr and the legacy he left all of us. If he were alive today, I think King would be proud of what the civil rights movement accomplished, but not satisfied with the status of a lot of unfinished business.
A Martin Luther Kind memorial is being built on the Mall in Washington, DC. Not only will it honor a great man, but It will retell his story and help us listen more closely to his important words. For more on the memorial, go to today's Washington Post at
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