Monday, January 21, 2008

Minister, Activist, Hero, Icon

This photo hurts my soul.

I wasn’t even born in 1955, when the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, inspired by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who refused to give her seat to a white man, began a 13-month boycott of the city bus system. The strike was coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association, with Martin Luther King as its president. In June of 1956 (the month and year of my birth) the federal district court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. After surviving challenges up to the Supreme Court, the ruling stood firm and, on December 20, 1956, King declared the boycott over.

As a white child living in New England, I never really knew of Martin Luther King while he was alive. I do remember some images from the television that I did not understand. I was just shy of 12 years old when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It wasn't until years later that his impact on the world really hit me. It still boggles my mind that black people had to work so hard and so long to get the rights that should have been afforded to them - basic human rights.

That blacks were not allowed in bathrooms, restaurants, schools, churches - that they had to sit in the back of buses seems truly inconcievable to me.

That black riders were made to pay at the front of the bus and enter from the rear is absolutely shameful.

That three months into the bus strike, 156 protesters, including King, were arrested for violating a 1921 law against "hindering" a bus. Martin Luther King was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in prison, a move that backfired on white authorities because it called national attention to the protest and generated much outrage.

That Martin Luther King was constantly harrassed by the FBI, state and local police and arrested time and time again for his peaceful protests.

That in 1965 blacks had to march in protest to be able to vote! Imagine how he would feel today knowing that a black man has a very good chance to be the next President of the United States.

Almost forty years after his death, Dr. King's revolutionary deeds still inspire me and millions around the world and his message of freedom and equality for all resonates through every conversation about race in America today. His words still hold a stunning power and grace almost 40 years after his death in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

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