Everyone can make a difference
The Reverend Martin Luther King’s 91st birthday today offers an opportunity to reflect on his intrinsic qualities. Dr King asked us to ignore surface matters but instead to consider the content of one’s character.
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the iconic Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr King’s oratory and humility helped to galvanise that movement, initiating a paradigm shift across America and beyond.
His humility was grounded in his understanding that everyone can make a difference.
In fact, the introduction of Dr King’s movement was a result of the extraordinary courage of a 15-year-old student in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 2, 1955. Nine months before Rosa Parks’s historic stand, teenager Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat and was arrested.
Activist E.D. Nixon pulled together an ad hoc group to strategise a response. This included veteran lawyer Clifford Durr and his protégé, Fred Gray, as well as a new minister in Montgomery — Martin Luther King.
Given the terrorising presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Montgomery, the bold action of the teen inspired the community. Within months, three other women, including another teen, repeated her bravery. Fred Gray attempted a legal strategy. Given the circumstances, it was decided to hold on launching a campaign.
That said, Claudette Colvin and those others had reminded their community that everyone can make a difference. They laid the groundwork for Rosa Parks’s stand on December 1, 1955.
That heroism led E.D. Nixon to mobilise his contacts and Montgomery’s clergy. Independently, women teachers secretly distributed leaflets announcing a bus boycott.
Having been inspired and reminded that he could make a difference, Dr King agreed to chair the campaign. With humility and an understanding of the status quo, MLK appreciated that the movement should include everyone.
The chord struck in Montgomery even mobilised a few whites. Since few blacks owned vehicles for carpooling, sustaining the boycott became a logistical nightmare.
Some support came from out of town, notably from Harry Belafonte and Stanley Levison from New York.
As the boycott gained traction, police and official bureaucracy undermined momentum.
Eventually, terror struck with the bombing of Dr King’s home on January 30, 1956. Subsequently, 90 boycott leaders were arrested.
These tactics further galvanised campaigners. Fred Gray initiated court action, with Claudette Colvin and the other three as plaintiffs. The historic United States Supreme Court ruling was implemented on December 20, 1956 after a 385-day boycott, which demonstrated that everyone can make a difference.
After the success of Montgomery, the movement became formally known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and independent actions popped up.
Students staged sit-ins at segregated facilities across the South. By 1961, black and white students — “freedom riders” — from universities across America travelled on interstate buses, challenging Jim Crow.
The SCLC assisted a Birmingham campaign in April 1963 with direct action. Scores of volunteers were arrested.
When MLK’s imprisonment failed to bear results, hundreds of schoolchildren joined the campaign and the jails were overflowing.
Commissioner of Public Safety Theodore Eugene “Bull” Connor pre-empted those peaceful protesters with fire hoses and dogs, resulting in iconic media pictures.
The next day, further crowds appeared peacefully in Birmingham, and when ordered to turn on fire hoses, officers refused. They remembered that everyone can make a difference.
This loss resulted in a late-night bombing of the home of Dr King’s brother, A.D. King. Fortunately, the seven family members escaped serious injury and A.D. led the efforts in calming the hundreds who were enraged by the cowardly act.
He repeated this when the motel in which his older brother had stayed was also bombed.
In the mass meeting after this violence, Dr King addressed the polarising impulse to restore spirits in the face of the grave challenges: “ ... this is not a struggle between black people and white people, this is a struggle between justice and injustice”.
Dr King’s affirmation manifested within days when in Ohio, during a series of rallies co-ordinated by the Episcopal bishop.
Rallies included mostly white parishioners among more than 10,000 in attendance over a 12-hour period. Significant movement funds were raised, demonstrating again that everyone can make a difference.
Later that summer, Dr King shared his “dream”.
On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, Dr King demonstrated his substantial integrity in an historic speech at New York’s Riverside Church.
He disregarded advice from some colleagues in the civil rights movement who were fearful of opposing the US Government’s Vietnam War policy.
Dr King’s call for peace addressed the “big picture” and the human family’s interconnectedness, confirming that everyone can make a difference.
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