Fifty years ago today, an assassin struck down one of America’s greatest leaders. It seems like it was just yesterday, and already a half-century has passed. I was seventeen years old, and a few months away from graduating from High School the day James Earl Ray struck down Dr. King.
I was home from school on that day. I had contracted mumps and was laying on a sofa watching TV when the news broke about the assassination. Banal entertainment was over, and our four VHF TV channels in Chicago went to live coverage from Memphis.
Sadness grew to anger, and in the ensuing days, riots broke out across America as a cauldron of hurt boiled over. It was a paradox. The murder of a man who preached non-violence had triggered violence in cities across America.
I grew up in a town in Illinois that was as racist as anything Mississippi or Alabama could produce. Many people think of Illinois, the Land of Lincoln as being a liberal paradise, a blue state free from the chains of bigotry and ignorance.
It is not like that at all. When Dr. King came to Chicago, he required bodyguards due to the threats against him. In my hometown, Kankakee, Illinois, the banks redlined African-American neighborhoods and refused to give loans to people of color.
My Father owned a factory that employed African-Americans. My Father was as quiet of a man as I am a gregarious character. He was contemplative and rarely did I see him without a newspaper in his hand.
Due to the influence of Dr. King, my parents started co-signing loans for the African-Americans who worked for my Dad. No bank would dare to turn down my father. There was a regular parade to our home with people bringing their bank papers for Dad and Mom to sign. My parent’s actions were the scourge of the all-white Kankakee Country Club.
We did not call it being liberal in those days. My parents were conservatives. They were not blind to injustice because of an ideology. They called their actions helping people of color “doing the right thing.” There was no ideology attached. The Greatest Generation had a much more precise vision of right and wrong than what America seems to have today.
Dr. King’s words had a profound impact on my Father. Dr. King was a radical. We try to sanitize his words today. Some of the more common phrases, such as “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” have been taken out of context and are used today as inspirational sayings.
They are inspirational now. Fifty-years ago, they shook the status quo to its core. In Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we see a can see the radicalism clearly in his words.
The letter is in response to white moderates who had taken out a newspaper ad asking Dr. King to allow gradual change so as not to disrupt the social order. He criticized them for wishing to keep order rather than striving for justice. For Dr. King, there was no middle ground. There was justice, and there was oppression, and he was unwilling to compromise between the two.
His message was not about racial brotherhood. It was about injustice and ending legal discrimination based on race. His “I have a Dream” speech speaks to an ideal that is about racial brotherhood between equals. Dr. King felt moderates who wanted to maintain order at all costs were as big of a problem as the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists.
A legacy of Dr. King’s that I fear we are losing is there are no half-measures when it comes to racism and injustice. A second legacy is his model for bringing social change.
Lech Walesa employed the same tactics as Dr. King at the shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. His movement spread throughout the Warsaw Pact Nations and destroyed the Soviet Empire. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement has become the blueprint for revolutions, and social upheaval for change throughout the world.
He brought radical change to America, and that has led to change in the world. He understood that it is difficult to change attitudes. Change in attitudes was not his goal. He wanted the law to change, and he got the change he sought.
It is up to us to change the attitudes. How many generations will that take? I do not know. No one does know, but I do see changes from that time fifty years ago. We need to keep the change, and Dr. King’s dream of brotherhood between equals going.
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