The time has come for Muslims to change their global strategy. Ground wars against Israel have all been lost; bombings of high value targets have backfired; and sleeper cell attacks only solidify world hostility. The answer for Islamic moderates and radicals alike lies in the civil rights campaigns of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. My dream is that an inspirational leader will someday rise in the Muslim world who will follow Dr. King’s successful non-violent model. 

- JTS

When I was child growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut in the 1950s, I heard stories of crosses being burned (as late as the 1940s) on lawns of “n____ lovers” in town. Even my mother, who loved everyone, once warned me not to drink from a water fountain because a “colored man” had just used it.

If such deep-seated prejudice existed in the liberal North, you can imagine what it was like in the conservative South, well into the 20th century. But hadn’t that dark chapter in American history closed with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a horrific Civil War (850,000 dead on both sides), and three Constitutional Amendments that prohibited slavery, guaranteed citizenship, and ensured the right to vote? Sadly not. Blacks soon faced a new form of brutality–segregation from the dominant white majority. 

Jim Crow laws, the Klu Klux Klan, and outright hatred reduced blacks to poor, unschooled exiles. And when they protested, the heavy boot of institutional terror crushed them: The Tuskegee Institute Archives has recorded 3,446 blacks lynched in the South between 1882 and 1968. In Yahzoo County, Mississippi in 1882 only a small percentage of over 12,000 blacks dared to vote. 

As late as the summer of 1919, white gangs attacked blacks in eights cities killing a hundred people, and leaving over a 1,000 wounded and homeless. Think about this for a moment. It was if the Vikings endlessly raided black settlements in the south and no one came to the rescue. 

For 100 years where was the US Congress? Where were the courts? Where were Christian pastors? Where were local police departments? The answer to all four questions was the same: nowhere to be found.

This may seem hard to comprehend at time when a black man is president of the United States and equal opportunity is the law of the land.

In the end, justice prevailed, thanks, in no small part, to the charismatic leadership of a young black Southerner, Martin Luther King Jr., (1929-1968), who came of age during the 1950s. An ordained Baptist minister, he was a political activist and later leader of the civil rights movement after experiencing firsthand the damming effects of segregation. His approach–a belated model for Palestinians, among others–was based on civil disobedience in the tradition of Christian pacifism. (Matthew 5: 39: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”)

As we honor Dr. King’s memory this month, let’s consider how he accomplished so much in so little time. Historians give him extraordinarily high marks for the following four powers:

  • Inspirational Oratory

  • Organizational Leadership

  • Political Activism

  • Non-violent Civil Disobedience

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Inspirational Oratory

Just 26 years old in 1955, King learned that a black woman, Rosa Parks, had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. He went there and soon became the spokesman for a black boycott of the city’s public transportation system. For over a year, he was the face of the embargo, which ended in a federal court order ending discrimination on Montgomery buses. His calm, articulate presence thrust him onto the national stage. From that time until his death, he was the conscientious voice of the civil rights movement. Time and again, he delivered inspirational message and speeches that enraged segregationists, encouraged followers, and, ultimately shamed the nation to end almost 400 years of racial repression. 

His “I Have a Dream” talk, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, is still regarded as one of the finest speeches in American history. It helped motivate some 250,000 people to return to their cities and towns and campaign for civil rights.

Here is a key passage of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.


I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.


I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Transcriptions of speeches record the words, but not the power, emotion and drama of great oratory. King’s rich, rhythmic voice, accented with hand gestures, always had a stirring impact on his audiences. 

Organizational Leadership

Following his experience in Montgomery, King, at 28, realized boycotts and protests impacted one city at a time. And once, the hubbub subsided, the city went back to its segregationist ways. We must, he reasoned, find a way to systematically organize and orchestrate protests, which impact the whole country. He soon co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its first president. Its mission was to “harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform.” King led the SCLC until his death.

Not content to sit behind a desk and plan civil rights protests, he became an active participant. Time and again, he led nonviolent protests throughout the south. One of these marches in Birmingham, Alabama, which was brutally suppressed, gained national news attention for King and the SCLC. 

The following year, he helped organize the great march on Washington, culminating in the “I Have a Dream” address. In 1965, he and the SCLC helped to organize marches throughout the south, and then took the movement north to border and northern states. In the last year of his life, he was planning another great march on Washington D.C. to publicize weaknesses in civil rights laws and the crushing poverty that denied millions of blacks a chance to live the American Dream.

Political Activism

According to Susan Gillson (The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, 2006), King and the SCLC put into practice many of the “principles of the Christian Left and applied the tactics of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out. There were often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities. Sometimes these confrontations turned violent.”

Recognizing that legislative action on the national level alone could address the plight of black Americans, King and the SCLC lobbied the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, coaxing, cajoling and arguing for justice. Inspired by King’s speeches and nonviolent protests, the Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlawed discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It also ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and terminated segregation in schools, workplaces and public facilities.

The following year, President Johnson praised King and the SCLC in a speech in which he urged all Americans to embrace the spirit of the new law and work together, saying:

"The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety, and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change; designed to stir reform. He has been called upon to make good the promise of America."

Non-violent Civil Disobedience

Dr. King’s approach to change emanated from a passionate acceptance of Jesus’ teachings on non-violent resistance to evil force. Throughout his life, his message was grounded in Jesus’ commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above all, loving your enemies, praying for them, and blessing them. Even when radical elements in the black community urged separatism and “eye for an eye” violence, King never swayed from the gospel’s message of love, peace, and charity.

As a student, he found a model for future action in Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience. It convinced him of the value of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, as did Leo Tolstoy’s nonviolent classic, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, another philosophical justification for peaceful protest. He found his greatest encouragement though in the “successful precedent” of Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful protests against British imperialism in India. In 1959, King traveled to India to deepen his understanding of Gandhi’s tactics. In a radio address at the end of the trip, he said,

"Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity."

Four decades later, no one doubts Martin Luther King’s contribution or his commitment to the cause. For over 10 years, he led a national movement, not for economic gain but for human rights. He was a counselor to presidents, the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, and is now immortalized in marble on the national mall. Along the way, he was jailed 29 times, critically stabbed, physically assaulted four times, smeared, and wiretapped by the FBI, found his house bombed, his life threatened hundreds of time, and in the end shot dead by a hired killer. 

The last night of his life, he had a sense, like Jesus, of what was to come, saying among other things:

"We’ve got some difficult days ahead, But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now, I just want to do God’s will… He’s allowed me to see the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

(Cover image courtesy ABC News)

 

Jack T. Scully is an entrepreneur and writer who resides in the beautiful Champlain Valley of northern Vermont. Active in the Vermont high-tech community, he is also a novelist, poet, and blogger. His Pilgrim's Rest blog contains inspirational essays, original pictures and media -- all designed to foster universal kinship and tolerance, peace and love, self-reliance and simplicity. His novel Eyewitness is available at Amazon.com and is currently being presented for hardcover publication.