Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Atlanta, Georgia.  Visited December 2006

Some dates stick out to you when you are growing up. For me, one of those dates was April 4, 1968. We were leaving a cub scout event at my school, Dresden Elementary in Chamblee, Georgia. It was early spring chilly as we all climbed into our red Rambler stationwagon and my dad turned on the car. The news came to us through WSB AM, the only radio station I knew. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

For a nine year old white boy in the deep south, it was an unsettling moment. I didn’t know much about Dr. King or what he stood for, but my parents had taught me to respect him, just like they had taught me to root for Henry Aaron. But I knew enough to know that not everyone around us thought well of Dr. King and the movement he represented. And we were white southerners in a white southern culture. So shock and grief were mixed with fear – fear of what might happen next as the news began to impact the world around us.

I’m so grateful for my parents. What they said over those few days helped settle the fears of a little boy who didn’t understand the volatility of the day. What they modeled helped that little boy understand that race doesn’t define who we are, but character does.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His grandfather, Martin Luther King pastored the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin Luther King, Jr. would graduate from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Crozer Seminary in Philadelphia (now the location of Crozer Hospital) and receive his doctorate from Boston University. In 1954, he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. It was in Montgomery that he began to walk out the convictions on civil rights that would define him and his impact.

King marker at Crozer Seminary where he studied theology.  The seminary
is right next to Crozer Hospital near Chester, PA

The major markers of King’s legacy in civil rights and racial reconciliation are significant events in American History – Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the March on Washington and the I Have a Dream Speech; the Nobel Prize in 1964, opposition to the Vietnam War - all centered King in some of the momentous changes of the Twentieth Century.

In Spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to speak to and support a sanitation workers' strike. His final 'Mountaintop' speech on April 3 hauntingly foreshadows his impending death .  It was there, one day later, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death by James Earl Ray.

In front of Ebenezer Baptist Church, December 2006
Martin Luther King Jr. is buried with his wife Coretta (4/27-1/06) next to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The Church, Kings’s boyhood home and some other buildings have been combined with the King Study center as part of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. It is a place every American should visit.

Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons contain some of the most profoundly moving public words ever spoken. This is one of my favorite King quotes.

Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.

At the King gravesite, December 2006

The personal connection I have to April 4, 1968, came home to me in a fresh way this past May. My dad had suddenly passed away and we were all gathered together at the family home in Toccoa, Georgia. We had made a bonfire out beside the house – like my dad used to do – and we were all sitting around sharing Grandad stories. I mentioned hearing of Dr. King’s assassination as something that has stayed with me. My brother John jumped into the conversation and shared the very same impact hearing the news had on him.  We had never mentioned this night to each other before, yet we both could go back today to the very spot on the side of the road where we heard the news. It’s a sad memory, but an important one. Learning from my white southern parents in the late Sixties taught me to look beyond race – to see the value of a person in their character, not judge them by their color. That’s the power of parenting. That’s the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on me.

Statue which is the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King Jr.
Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC

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