Next Monday marks thirty years since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became an official federal holiday, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. I invite you to join me to reflect on this champion’s persistence and vision for human rights, justice and equality, rather than only focusing on his is 1968 assassination.

I remember when my next door neighbor and I rode our bikes to see what all the talk was about concerning protests on a main street in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Although I was only about nine years old, I vividly recall what we found: An orderly group of black men and women walking behind the lead row, setting a slow pace arm in arm. There was no violence on either side and very few words from the all-white bystanders.

A few years later when I was a freshman in high school in Chicago, Dr. King lead the Chicago Freedom Movement. Although I never personally saw him lead demonstrations against segregation in education, my respect for his nonviolent tactics grew.

But it was during that year when Dr. King led a march to promote open housing in Marquette Park, located just two miles from my school. I had classmates and good friends that lived in this all-white Chicago neighborhood so civil rights wasn’t distant any more. At the Marquette Park event, however, nonviolent black demonstrators were met with intense racially-fueled hostility. Bottles and bricks were thrown at the protestors; Dr. King was struck by a rock.

That evening I watched  the news where Dr. King admitted in an interview that he had seen many anti-civil rights demonstrations in southern states, but none were as hostile and violent as the one he experienced earlier that day. I recall that I was truly disappointed that the movement attempting to try to achieve fair or open housing in Chicago would be such a major challenge.

After three years, the Chicago Freedom Movement’s goal to achieve fair open-housing, as a step toward ending the racial divide here, weren’t achieved. This was, in part, because a pact between Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders and Mayor Richard J. Daley, as well as respected civic, business and religious officials, failed.

The sixties were turbulent times for me to grow up, but my respect for Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics grew. My admiration continues today and will be the centerpiece of my reflections this week.

So how did Martin Luther King Jr. emerge to be the premier Civil Rights leader?

His preparation for leadership was based a his considerable formal and diverse education. While attending Morehouse College, he was exposed to the writings of Henry David Thoreau. King was inspired by Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which became a cornerstone of the momentum that would one day change the landscape of our society. King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology.

After that, he continued his education by attending his first integrated school, Crozer Theological Seminary, in Pennsylvania. As a student, he absorbed the teachings of many inspirational leaders from the past. But it is here where he first became exposed to the reflective teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951.

Needing a setting for his study of ethics and philosophy in a multicultural community, Martin Luther King, Jr. enrolled at Boston University in the Fall of 1951. He became “Dr. King” by earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955 at the age of 26.

He utilized the leadership abilities he had gained from his religious background and academic training when he was selected to head a group to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.

In his role as the primary spokesman of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King’s distinctive protest strategy was based on Mohandas Gandhi’s precepts of nonviolence and involved the mobilization of black churches and skillful appeals for white support. The bus boycott ended in 1956 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation was illegal.

Dr. King’s notable civil rights activities included his leadership of a group of 125,000 people in a Freedom Walk in Detroit in June 1963. On August 28th of the same year he joined more than 250,000 people in the ‘March on Washington’ where he delivered his brilliant ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

I’d be delinquent if I failed to emphasize that Dr. King had two major legislative goals for equal rights that he relentlessly pursued and succeeded to achieve:

  1. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This piece of civil rights and US labor law legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
  2. Passage of the Voting Rights Act. This law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 with the purpose of overcoming legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.

This week I also recall some of the feelings of another personal experience. The year 2000 found me with a family business owner participating in one of my Exit/Succession planning workshops in Atlanta, GA. During a scheduled afternoon off, we went to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. What a moving experience that was! To see Dr. King’s gravesite near the reflecting pool and eternal flame, as well as Freedom Hall and the other buildings on the site, were poignant and inspiring. We took our time visiting the museum, reading details of this phenomenal leader, completing the day by sitting near the reflecting pond talking about what we learned.

Frank, my companion that day, said that he learned Dr. King was Time magazine’s 1963 “Man of the Year”. I responded that I discovered that Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize when he was only 35 years old. Such a remarkable feat!

Click here to read the entire ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Here are three very short excerpts from Dr. King’s August 28, 1963 speech for us to ponder.

About the Past

“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.”

The Present

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

His Vision

“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that; let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

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