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.
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!