By D. Kevin McNeir
Executive Editor, New Jersey Urban News
It’s hard to believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism and the eradication of racial discrimination, was assassinated almost 53 years ago.
But what cannot be disputed is the relevance of his often-prophetic writings and political thought – much of which remains underappreciated and rarely examined except by those within the community of scholars.
When King died at the age of 39, I was an eight-year-old boy – blessed and fortunate enough to be living in a loving, two-parent, middle class household in Detroit. At the time, the mission of Dr. King and the ministry to which he devoted his life had little significance to me.
In fact, it would be nearly three decades later before I would secure the knowledge, as a seminarian in Atlanta at the Emory University Candler School of Theology, to fully comprehend King beyond the more typical, romanticized version of his life.
During the summer prior to King’s tragic death, Detroit had reached the boiling point – exploding in racial turmoil after Blacks had become fed up with a mostly-white police department that harassed, humiliated and abused our men, women and sometimes children.
And while my parents and older sister understood the danger around us, I was kept in the dark – safely ensconced in a cocoon of Black love.
Shortly after King’s death, efforts began by a multi-racial contingency to make his birthday, January 15, a federal holiday. It would take the herculean efforts of thousands of Americans before President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 and it would first be observed three years later.
However, just as we see hundreds of thousands of Americans today refusing to accept the defeat of Donald Trump and the victory of President-elect Joe Biden – hanging on to conspiracy theories and unable or unwilling to put their personal prejudices and desires aside for the good of our democracy, many Americans were adamant in their refusal to accept the MLK Day.
At first, some states resisted observing the holiday, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It would not be until 2000 when MLK Day was officially observed in all 50 states.
Yes, change can indeed be difficult.
This year, Dr. King’s birthday will be celebrated, as the law prescribes, on the third Monday of the month, which is January 18. But there will be differences from previous King Day celebrations not only because of the still deadly COVID-19 pandemic but because of fears that the winds of violence have not yet dissipated after last week’s assault on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing insurgents.
I recommend that you read King’s “Stride Toward Freedom” – his influential account of the Montgomery bus boycott which offers an original story of African-American nonviolence, the Civil Rights Movement’s adoption of “the principle of love” and of King’s realization of its power.
As one writer notes in a recently-published collection of essays about the philosophical writings of King, ‘To Shape a World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’ “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method. But King’s ‘pilgrimage to nonviolence’ was marked by moments of doubt.”
Like Christ and Gandhi, King would also lose his life at the hands of a world obsessed with violence and hatred of “the other.” Yet, somehow and despite his fears and doubts, Dr. King stayed the course.
As we celebrate Dr. King and honor the sacrifice he made for Blacks, our nation and the world, we should remember that he bore a cross which many of us would never consider hoisting upon our own shoulders.