Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A Warrior of Light
By Lauri Lyons
As a person born after the signing of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I was not a witness to the loud calls for justice that took place in the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like many generations that followed, my knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. primarily came from what I was taught in school and from archival film clips of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.
With that rote knowledge, I, like many others felt that I had a good idea of who Dr. King was and what he stood for. My idea of him was a noble, calm, and well-spoken civil rights leader. Indeed, he was all of those things, but he was also so much more. He was fire, brimstone, determination, strategy, and human.
By the late 1960’s Dr. King began to publicly denounce the war in Vietnam. He noted that prior to his comments about the war, he received praise from the press for his stance of nonviolence tactics against whites in the South, however, he did not gain favor from the press by advocating for nonviolence tactics against people of color in Vietnam.
Although he was certainly not alone in his criticism of the war, he was very vocal in articulating the war’s immorality, the disproportionate number of blacks being drafted, and the diversion of money for war, that could have been used for domestic social programs. He stated that America had a moral obligation to de-escalate the war because our government was responsible for escalating the war. He later publicly called for a unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam, which was a hard pill to swallow for a nation that prides itself on winning wars.
Throughout this period MLK’s popularity with white Americans greatly decreased and some civil rights leaders advised him to just stick to civil rights issues. He was often publicly denounced as a communist and agitator. MLK’s response to his critics was, “A man of conscience can never be a consensus leader.” and “Peace is not a goal, it is the means in which we arrive at the goal.”
In conjunction with his demands to end the war in Vietnam, MLK began mobilizing a moral crusade against the economic inequities plaguing the United States. With the initiation of his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, he was very aware that it was much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it was to end poverty, guarantee an annual income, and eradicate the slums. Nevertheless, he marched forward with a conviction to expand the framework of civil rights to include the working poor.
What became his final speech, for striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, is a haunting and foreboding allegory about his courage to face death. What is truly remarkable about the ‘I’ve Been To the Mountaintop’ speech is his water filled eyes, his shaken tone of voice, and the courage he musters to speak beyond his visible fears. It is obvious that as a young man, with a wife and four small children, he knew that his time to live and love, was soon coming to an abrupt end.
In MLK’s brief time as a public figure (1957- 1968), he delivered 2,500 speeches, wrote five books, traveled six million miles, became Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and was the keynote speaker for the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation - The 1963 March On Washington.
However, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s greatest legacy is not his long list of accomplishments, but rather his answer to a call of action, which required faith, morality, and courage, from ordinary people facing injustice on all levels.
This year Dr. King would have been 89 years old. If he had lived over the past fifty years, one can not help but wonder what his perspective would have been regarding some of the most pressing issues of this time. What would have been his opinion about the women’s liberation movement, the nuclear arms race, the war on drugs, gay rights, immigration laws, the prison industrial system, the Wall Street banking scandals, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring protests, and alternative facts? My guess is that his opinions about these issues would have continued to push the uncomfortable boundaries of our consciousness.
Dr. King’s unwavering demand for justice and equality was deeply rooted in his spiritual beliefs and the ideals of the American Dream. As fate would have it, his personal dream for America is still a dream in progress, which continues to inspire and challenge the world today.