In a space regularly reserved for young entrepreneurs, athletes and motivational speakers, it may be unusual to see the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the bravest men our country has seen.
On this day, however, we celebrate the life of man who's made an impact for the ages. It's important to remember that even in death, MLK's story is very much one of success.
To say that Dr. King's work was a catalyst for social change would be a massive understatement. There really are not enough words to describe his legacy and do it justice, which is probably why we retrace the accomplishments of MLK so often.
When words fail to describe how great of a figure he is, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s success takes the burden off of our lips and speaks for itself.
The same may be said for his challenges, as well. If recounting his victories remind us of how monumental his endeavors were, reviewing the hurdles MLK had to jump over might do the same:
1. Constant Patronizing From Portions Of White America
As African Americans made slow, incremental progress in the fight to gain equal Civil Rights under the leadership of Dr. King, the great activist endured the pressures of portions of White America that believed they weren't racist, but that King should tone it down.
"When will 'they' be satisfied?" some wondered after President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a flawed Civil Rights Act. "Why don't they just practice patience and wait it out?" others may have questioned. Some even went to the lengths of calling Blacks "ungrateful."
These were the mentalities Dr. King had to argue against and break down in order to climb the ladder of success. The reverend was straightforward in assessing just how much of a danger the White oppressors' mindset was against Blacks' cause:
"I wonder at men who dare to feel that they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another man’s liberation," he said. "Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white 'moderates.' I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner."
2. The Prospect Of Death
Throughout his days fighting the good fight, Dr. King was subjected to more threats than he could count, literally. It'd take quite the imagination to picture a day that his mailbox was empty.
The amount of times that nameless and, by virtue of their anonymity, cowardly individuals tried to intimidate and deter Dr. King from carrying out his mission of facilitating racial equality was so significant that it's hard to even think of how MLK could carry on without being shaken to the core.
It's so mind-boggling that he had to explain:
"Because I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function," Dr. King said. "After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically... I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause."
Like every man, Martin Luther King, Jr. was fallible and to man, he was honest about his mistakes. While it might be surprising to hear, one of his biggest mistakes came in his strategy for making the Civil Rights Movement successful. Speaking of one of his demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, he said:
"The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair. It would have been much better to have concentrated upon integrating the busses or the lunch counters. One victory of this kind would have been symbolic, would have galvanized support and boosted morale."
4. The Law
It's no secret that MLK fought to gain equality by the law and to have unjust laws revoked. That much is a given. Even worse than the pieces of legislation that were already in place, however, were the measures to which municipalities would go to derail King's efforts on the fly. The reverend regarded these as "immoral, man-made laws."
"Specifically, court injunctions," he said. "Though the rights of the First Amendment guarantee that any citizen or group of citizens may engage in peaceable assembly, the South has seized upon the device of invoking injunctions to block our direct-action civil rights demonstrations. When you get set to stage a nonviolent demonstration, the city simply secures an injunction to cease and desist."
5. Opposition From His Own Faith
One might think that spearheading the fight for equal human rights would be an easy ask of those who claim the religion of a just God, but Dr. King cites clergymen as the opposition that gave him the greatest disappointment.
MLK once thought they would be one of his greatest sources of support, yet he found that some, mostly white, ministers and priests hid behind the (very convenient) notion that the church should not involve itself in social issues. Furthermore, it was the hypocrisy in this stance that was most insulting:
"As the Negro struggles against grave injustice, most white churchmen offer pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities," King said. "As you say, they claim that the gospel of Christ should have no concern with social issues. Yet white churchgoers, who insist that they are Christians, practice segregation as rigidly in the house of God as they do in movie-houses. Too much of the white church is timid and ineffectual, and some of it is shrill in its defense of bigotry and prejudice. In most communities, the spirit of status quo is endorsed by the churches."
6. His Own Community
In order to motivate the black community and get everyone to channel their frustrations into a disciplined, non-violent movement, the African Americans had to first be organized. This, King says, was a challenge in itself, as the reverend had to fight for his own people's backing before he went to (peaceful) war with the nation.
"Negro ministers were among other Negro leaders who felt they were being pulled into something that they had not helped to organize," King said. "This is almost always a problem. Negro community unity was the first prerequisite if our goals were to be realized. I talked with many groups, including one group of 200 ministers, my theme to them being that a minister cannot preach the glories of heaven while ignoring social conditions in his own community that cause men an earthly hell."
7. The Lack Of Value For Black Life
The worst aspect of racists' efforts to deter African Americans from, essentially, fighting for their freedom was the fact that their threats actually came to fruition with little to no consequence. Intimidation wasn't just words with empty meaning; threats were warnings given out with a mission to kill.
This simply proposed another hurdle for King to jump, the task of convincing government to, as King says:
"Curb the worsening reign of terror in the South—which is aided and abetted, as everyone knows, by state and local law-enforcement agencies. It’s getting so that anybody can kill a Negro and get away with it in the South, as long as they go through the motions of a jury trial," King said. "There is very little chance of conviction from lily-white Southern jurors. It must be fixed so that in the case of interracial murder, the federal government can prosecute."
While there were those who promote certain programs are given the label of "radicals," a term which inherently has negative connotation, there were those who gave labels to Dr. King and all those who followed.
King was called, amongst numerous things, an instigator, a thief who was in the "business" of Civil Rights for personal gain and an extremist.
But, as was his nature, Dr. King took the insulting way in which people tried to turn attention away from Civil Rights, in order to shine a negative light on the movement, and used it as an opportunity to put the focus back on love.
"It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist—in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love," King said. "...Love is the only force on earth that can be dispensed or received in an extreme manner, without any qualifications, without any harm to the giver or to the receiver."
9. A Feeling Of Hopelessness
Even Dr. King, who invoked hope as fuel for the Civil Rights Movement, at a point felt like the road he was traveling was never-ending.
He would overcome this feeling, of course, but it's important to remember, in thinking back to how great of a mountain African Americans were aiming to conquer, that even the most unshakable of leaders had his resolve brought to its knees, if even for a second:
"I shall never forget the grief and bitterness I felt on that terrible September morning when a bomb blew out the lives of those four little, innocent girls sitting in their Sunday-school class in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham," King said. "I think of how a woman cried out, crunching through broken glass, “My God, we’re not even safe in church!” I think of how that explosion blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window. It was symbolic of how sin and evil had blotted out the life of Christ. I can remember thinking that if men were this bestial, was it all worth it? Was there any hope? Was there any way out?"
10. Actual Death
Dr. King was prophetic when it came to his eventual assassination, as he delivered one of his more famous speeches, "I've Been To The Mountaintop."
"Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."
Even in death, however, Martin Luther King's impact was felt. The power of the Civil Rights Movement, which he headed with conviction, drove social change years after he'd been laid to rest. Although Dr. King did not live to see the beauty of the free world we inhabit, sharing equal Civil Rights among all races, we show him our undying gratitude on this day and every day of our lives.
Thank you, Dr. King, for leading the way.
(Note: Numbers one through nine use quotes from a 1965 interview, which was conducted by Alex Haley for Playboy, the longest interview he'd ever given.)