Dr. King’s vision for America: racial justice, democracy

Will Shakespeare

Groundcover vendor No. 258

Photo credit: Christopher Ellis

“The American dream is as yet unfulfilled … We must learn to live as brothers or die as fools.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Nov. 5, 1962 at Hill Auditorium on U-M Campus.

Dr. King was invited to the University of Michigan campus by the Office for Religious Affairs  to speak at the 1962 Hill Auditorium event on the topic, “What the Negroes want.”

Sadly the promoters of the event described King as “an articulate and controversial speaker active in the push for integration in the South.”

Dr. King saw the irony of the non-diverse religious leaders who invited him portraying him as a regional civil rights activist and not acknowledging the visible lack of diversity on the U-M campus. He was invited back several times and chose not to visit again.

On January 17 the keynote lecture of the  2022 U-M MLK Symposium will once again take place at Hill Auditorium. The theme is “This is America.” Stated Dr. Sellers, the outgoing U-M Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, “This is America allows all disciplines to examine their commitment to social justice through practices, delivery, access, public policy, culture, research and doctrines. I am proud and look forward to the way our campus community has come together to increase meaningful platforms for discussions that will engage faculty, staff and students.”

Other Symposium events start as early as January 8. The schedule is at oami.umich.edu/um-mlk-symposium/events/

Dr. King’s America: struggles and challenges

Dr. King’s birth, life and death spanned numerous noteworthy historic moments of the 20th century. He was born January 15, 1929, in highly-segregated Atlanta, Georgia. Within that decade, a white mob burned down “The Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, killing more than 300 Black residents. And the highly successful Harlem Renaissance started in 1920 and ended in 1940. The Great Depression began in August 1929 — the year of King’s birth. He was a child of the Depression and the New Deal national recovery programs of the 1930s (such as the Social Security Act).

The modern civil rights movement began in 1955, per scholars such as Aldon Morris of Northwestern University. Dr. King was completing his dissertation on systematic theology, philosophy and ethics at Boston University when the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1954, decided in Linda Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that the “separate but equal” status of the races was no longer the law of the land, rejecting the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)  ruling that instated it. The Brown decision was monumental. After 58 years of legal segregation, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “We were wrong in the Plessy case of 1896.”

Dr. King was a pastor of a Montgomery, Alabama church 1954-1961. He worked with activist Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Improvement Association and residents on a successful bus boycott, starting in December 1955, to end discrimination and humiliations suffered by Blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public buses violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution.  

In his 1958 book, “A Stride to Freedom,” Dr. King told the bus boycott story. His second book (1963), was “The Strength to Love,” a collection of sermons on the topics of racial segregation, racial inequality, racial injustice, non-violent direct action, and the Christian universality of love. Dr. King invoked the Greek word “Agape” which implied “going the extra mile to ensure the well-being of others” — strangers, neighbors, friends, co-workers  — and having the strength to truly love all God’s children. This strength to love and faith in God formed the basis of the famed “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. The next year King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he and his brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, worked with Dr. King to craft a Civil Rights Bill. Although many Southern Democrats were not cooperative, it later sailed through Congress led by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson.

The struggle continued. The Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist groups in the South tried (and still do try) to interfere with minority folks’ rights and freedom to vote. In 1965, John Lewis (later a Congressman, now deceased) led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on a march from Selma to Montgomery, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The peaceful demonstration was met with Alabama Troopers who beat up many, including Lewis. It is known as The Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965. Dr. King and members of the Southern Leadership Council secured protection for another march, which was successful. President Johnson pushed the 1965 Voting Rights Bill through Congress and signed it into law.

Search for Genuine Equality, Racial Justice Continues

Dr. King was born into segregation. He rejected segregation and all forms of discrimination, inequality and racial injustice. He dreamed that his children would not grow up in a land of  racism and prejudice — that all children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…  Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Before his 1968 assassination, Dr. King realized that after all the civil rights achievements of the 1960s the nation was still segregated, still divided. In April 1967, he said, at Stanford University, “… The American negro finds himself living in a triple ghetto. The ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of misery … [The] struggle today is much more difficult … because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It is much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions … [w]e demand genuine equality … We must honestly see that racism is still deeply rooted all over America.”

Today, American democracy is on the brink. Passage of proposed voting rights bills (John Lewis Act, For the People Act) would affirm a national commitment to equality, and the proposed Build Back Better Act a commitment to economic justice. King once said he was a prisoner of hope. Let’s keep hope alive! Let’s pay attention, get involved, and keep pushing to realize the dream!!!

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