ON April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. As Southern Christian Leadership Conference president, he was in Memphis that day to lead a boycott demanding fair and equal pay for garbage workers. Dr. King’s untimely death changed the paradigm from equal rights to economic justice as the civil rights of today.
The words of Dr. King in his 1963 March on Washington “I Have a Dream” speech provide the foundation for civil rights in America: “This note was a promise to all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’… 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.’”
Civil rights are a guarantee to all legal citizens in America. The operative word is “all” and that includes Hispanics, Muslims, Asians and others. America has always been a melting pot comprised of immigrants of ethnic groups from all over the world, with the exception of Native Americans. As Dr. King said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
The Founding Fathers’ intent expressed in the Declaration of Independence has evolved into what is commonly called civil rights. Civil rights is a broad term encompassing the quest and struggle for the essentials of life such as: employment, equal justice, quality education, ability to vote, fair housing and permission to marry whom you desire.
Civil rights in America traces through some tumultuous times — Emancipation Proclamation, 4,732 recorded instances of lynching between 1882 and 1951, formation of the Ku Klux Klan, legalized segregation, and voting restrictions based on race.
The culmination of the above events set the stage for Dr. King’s entrance into the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama when the Montgomery Improvement Association selected Dr. King, a local pastor from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to organize and direct a bus boycott.
At the first mass meeting for the group, Dr. King inspired the people to mobilize with these words, “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over a year, until finally the city ended its unjust policy of segregating public buses. Following the success of this movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrust into a leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King’s life from 1957 to 1968 was a selfless pursuit for equal justice for humanity. The Southern Christian Conference was organized and he was elected its first President in 1957 with the purpose of extending the tactics utilized in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and also confronting all forms of segregation in America.
As a Baptist pastor, King thought the black church should be involved in political activism against social ills. Some members of the black community and the black church itself thought this approach was controversial because it challenged the white-dominated status quo and risked economic retaliation, arson, bombings, violent attacks and lynching. In response to such concerns, Dr. King said, “Any religion that professes to be about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangles them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritual moribund religion awaiting burial.”
Dr. King was a man of courage and conviction driven by spiritual devotion to humanity. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” he said.
Dr. King’s challenges and triumphs were many. From the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, his arrest and subsequent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — to the March on Washington, when he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, which between 200,000 and 300,000 people attended — to the Selma Voting Rights Movement and March on Montgomery — to Bloody Sunday when 600 protesters were attacked by police. Dr. King in 1964 became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. King’s legacy was constructed and left in the six million miles he traveled, the 2,500 speeches he gave, countless articles he wrote and five books he authored. His legacy to America was a life motivated by the simple belief that love and reconciliation can and would mend the great divide and unite the family of humanity. He said it best, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Dr. King challenged our nation to move past selfishness driven by institutional hate that builds barriers. He called on our nation to embrace its selflessness packaged in love and move toward progress and toleration for others in America. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, this Baptist pastor received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a memorial in the National Mall — traditionally reserved for U.S. presidents — a national holiday and more than 900 streets that bear his name all over the United States. Yet Dr. King the man simply wanted to be remembered as “a drum major for peace and a drum major for justice.”
We are challenged in this city and our nation to move past the darkness of differences that divide and separate us. Dr. King calls on us to embrace the bright light of love and reconciliation by sharing the resources of our city fairly to ensure economic justice, which makes civil rights possible for all. Forty-eight years after King’s death, the quest and struggle for civil rights continues in Jacksonville and America. The U. S. Supreme Court in 2015 gutted portions of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Many states are enforcing voter suppression laws. Twenty percent of blacks in Florida cannot vote due to criminal convictions. Florida has 25 percent of all the homeless families in America.
The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the growing number of police killings of black males across this country. Gay Americans are seeking legal protection for employment and housing. Hispanics want immigration reform. Black contractors are currently suing the city for denying their rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Part 8 of Chapter 126 Purchasing Code of Jacksonville, Florida. This city and three mayors have ignored two Disparity Studies (1990, 2013) that outline historic and sociologic discrimination in Jacksonville dating back to slavery.
Our challenge today is to embrace Dr. King’s legacy and his approach of responding to life’s situations involving civil rights with love and reconciliation, guided by candid, open and honest communication, which is needed in Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration. James Baldwin’s words summarize our current state of affairs concerning civil rights in Jacksonville and America, “Not everything that is faced can
be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Dr. Gray is board chair of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Jacksonville chapter.