THIS week the world will remember the life and contributions of the drum-major of the American Civil Rights Movement, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr King was born in 1929 and lived for just 39 years, having been assassinated on that fateful night of April 14, 1968. The enormity of his contribution to African-American liberation, American society and world civilisation far outstrips the relative brevity of his life on earth. He is easily the most important public person to have emerged from the USA in the 20th century—a giant in a century of giants.
Rising from relative obscurity, he reached heights that could not be envisaged when he was, in 1955, chosen to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. Here was a young 26-yr-old Baptist preacher, just out of college, being thrown into the top leadership of what turned out to be the catalyst of one of the 20th century’s great revolutionary moments. Clearly, there was something the elders in Montgomery saw in the young man from Atlanta, Georgia, that propelled them to make that prophetic decision.
For the next 13 years, King justified that faith in him by dedicating his every living moment to the cause of his people who had been in the struggle to regain their earthly freedom for almost four centuries. During that time, they had endured, survived and overcome the degradation of enslavement and would later face slavery by another name. They, the sons and daughters of Africa, were deemed to be less than human—not deserving of life and liberty.
And here was Dr Martin Luther King Jr taking on the burden of leading them on the final stretch towards freedom. He proved to be the ideal leader. Borrowing from CLR James, one could argue that he was the fusion of time, place and person and had the enormous capacity to absorb the energies and aspirations of the people who looked to him for leadership. But more than that, he managed to simultaneously speak to the conscience of those who saw Black people as less than human. This critical component was ultimately what set King apart from other Black leaders—his ability to simultaneously connect in a spiritual and political manner with the pain of Blacks, while speaking to the hearts of those who stood on the other side of righteousness.
Many will remember King, the incomparable orator, capable of moving people to action. Others will remember his non-violent crusade in the face of mindless violence. Still others will remember his ability to mend together the diverse tendencies within the movement into a united purpose. He was all those things and more. But today we want to remember him as the champion and defender of the least among us.
Dr King was by no means infallible— he had his human failings. But always, he managed to be selflessly loyal to the ideals of what he called the “beloved society.” He died a materially poor man—leaving no wealth for his young family. Although he was born into what could be called the “Black Middle Class,” he witnessed for the poor and the downtrodden. It was symbolic that at the time of his brutal murder he was standing in the ranks of poor sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. As he said then, “We cannot all be doctors or lawyers, but all work has dignity if it contributes to the welfare of humanity. If you sweep streets, then sweep streets as Shakespeare wrote poetry.”
He was also at the time of his death organising the “Poor People’s Campaign,” seeking to draw attention to the plight of the poor in a most dramatic way. In announcing the campaign, he uttered the following words which sadly rings true today, 52 years later: “The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D. C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive.
If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination…Consider, for example, the spectacle of cities burning while the national government speaks of repression instead of rehabilitation. Or think of children starving in Mississippi, while prosperous farmers are rewarded for not producing food.
Or Negro mothers leaving children in tenements to work in neighbourhoods where people of colour cannot live. Or the awesome bombardment, already greater than the munitions we exploded in World War II, against a small Asian land, while political brokers de-escalate and very nearly disarm a timid action against poverty. Or a nation gorged on money while millions of its citizens are denied a good education, adequate health services, decent housing, meaningful employment, and even respect, and are then told to be responsible.”