Blog: Martin Luther King’s Vision 60 Years On
By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Author’s Note: I find inspiration in the stories of people who have seen a need and tried to meet it. Be they healers, activists, politicians, leaders, or every day people who do the right thing in a difficult situation. These are people who stand up to oppression, or try to bring justice to places where none exists. For that reason, I have decided to create this series on Inspiring People.
I first became aware of Martin Luther King when I encountered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Social Studies class. I remember wondering why he was only dreaming that whites and blacks could be friends. I found out why when I moved to Texas for a year of schooling. My most enduring memory of that school was when I was sent home from school for playing with a group of African American children on the playground. I had such a hard time understanding what was happening, and it made me pay closer attention to the issues around racism in a way I never had before. As I grew older, and as the race riots of the sixties took center stage, Martin Luther King became a voice of reason for me.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. He came from a family of sharecroppers, and his father was the second of ten children. His father took over as pastor at an influential black church, so King received a better education than most black children could hope for in Atlanta in the 1930’s. Both his education and his father, who had led campaigns to advocate for racial equality, had a major influence on him. However, his father was also a strict disciplinarian and regularly beat him for the smallest of infractions.
Growing up in Georgia in the 30’s, King was exposed to racial prejudice on a regular basis. When he entered school, he was no longer allowed to play with his best friend, who happened to be white. He also lost the love of his life, who was a white woman, when his family objected to their marriage.
King became a Baptist minister in Birmingham and became involved in a bus boycott after a series of incidents where black passengers, including Rosa Parks, refused to give up their seats to white people. After the boycott, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which sought to organize the members of black churches for nonviolent protests for civil rights reform. He organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. His efforts led to the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As he became more well-known, he began receiving death threats and his house was bombed. All the while, he maintained that non-violent protest was the key to change. Many people were attacked by police and other whites during these protests, but Dr. King insisted on a non-violent approach. He was arrested 13 times, and though his life was marked by hardship, loss, and injustice, he persisted in maintaining and advocating non-violence and peace against a tide of persistent hate.
Today, as many are faced with exactly the same unfair treatment by authorities that he faced, I wonder what lasting impact his vision has had. His vision has endured even though we have not been able to act on it in ways that root out racism at its heart. Even though many of us feel disheartened at the persistence of racism at every level of our society, his vision of unity is still something we can return to. It is still a vision that can guide us. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to exactly the same conditions that Dr. King fought against. Both visions are an effort to elicit a more compassionate response to African American experience. But the question remains, how do we educate people away from hatred, cruelty, and prejudice?
King remained committed to peaceful protest as a means to bring racial, social and economic equality into reality despite his personal struggle with depression and his clashes with those who favored a more radical approach to reform. His “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963, and many others guided me through the turbulent times of the sixties:
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.
In 1964, King was recognized for his efforts when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Yet, only four years later, in 1968, he was shot and killed in Memphis by a white man whose heart was filled with hate. It is up to each one of us to look into our own hearts and try to ascertain how well we understand his vision – and how fully we support it. Although collective protest is as important today as it was 60 years ago as an agent of change, we must individually answer the question: Am I as dedicated to others’ well-being as I am to my own? If the answer is “no,” we must commit to doing the work to turn that answer into a “yes.” Only in this way will we be able to meet the promise of Dr. King’s vision.