Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the blessed persons of this world. Here was a man who changed society vastly for the better. Few, very few, men or women have been able in their lives to have a large uplifting effect on the quality of justice in our society. In the United States, it is unusual, on the whole, for a man or woman to devote their life to addressing issues of economic and social injustice. Most of us are focused on the immediate necessities of simply getting our families and ourselves through life. Life is not always and entirely easy, and people have to attend to their immediate responsibilities. Yet many do, to a degree, set aside a portion of their lives to solving problems which beset our communities, and state and nation. Usually this involves service and volunteer work at the local level. Some though, give their all, setting aside their lives to deal with vexing social issues and problems. But these latter are few. And among them, very, very few have the success in effecting critical social change that Dr. King achieved.
On Dr. King’s day of honor, we might well ponder the choice he made. Dr. King came from a family of honor. His own father and grandfather had been substantial leaders in the larger community of his city and the South from the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Dr. King himself was trained and prepared from boyhood to accept the same mantle of leadership, and he too at a young age would assume the pastorate of Ebenezer Baptist. Yet he took it to a higher level. Just out of Boston University, where he had earned his Ph.D in Theology, having completed undergraduate work at prestigious Morehouse University and seminary at Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, at age 25 he assumed the pastorate of the respected Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Here he was prepared, at the outset of his career, to follow in the strong tradition of church and community leadership of his family. But a larger destiny awaited him, a destiny which would change the South and nation, and inform the world of the imperatives of racial, social, and economic justice. He had to make a choice. Would he be a substantial leader in the conventional sense, or would he become a transformational leader, risking all, by challenging the seemingly impenetrable barriers faced by African-Americans in almost every aspect of life outside the Black Community in the South?
To take this larger step was fraught with risk and peril. Dr. King could have remained a substantial conventional leader. But he chose the road far less traveled, and became a transformational leader. The arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to abandon her seat and move to the back of a bus sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955. Mrs. Parks, a seamstress, was also the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. E.D. Nixon, a Pullman porter and community leader, was the local NAACP president. Mr. Nixon approached Dr. King and asked him to assume the leadership of a boycott to end segregation on the buses of Montgomery. It has been reported that Dr. King very briefly pondered this request, knowing that this decision would irrevocable change the pattern of his life. No longer would he be a conventional leader. He would be a change agent involved in issues of great moment and challenge, and risk. As a practical reality, the system of segregation in the South was very deeply entrenched, the slow path of the law to the contrary notwithstanding. He had always known, given the times in which he had grown up, that this moment of choice would come. Dr. King seized the moment, and became a transformational leader. The bus boycott was hard fought. Dr. King’s leadership and voice lead the way. For a year the Black community of Montgomery walked, and when possible, organized carpools. Dr. King was harassed and arrested on minor trumped up traffic charges. The danger was palpable. Along the way there were many snares and dangers. Very early on, in January 1956, Dr. King’s home was bombed while he spoke at Dexter Avenue encouraging the community to stand firm in the boycott. The entire effort called for historic courage and endurance. For a year the barriers of segregation were challenged, and did not yield easily. Finally, the work of young attorney Fred Gray of Tuskegee, who would become one of the nation’s pre-imminent African-American lawyers, resulted in the system of segregated public transportation being struck down by a federal court in the city, in December 1956. The African-American community in Montgomery had held the line, prevailed in the struggle. The issue was definitively resolved.
And what of Dr. King? He had provided leadership of such a caliber that the people did not fail or falter. He had been completely successful in leading the bus boycott. He had become a voice for the nation against the injustice of racial segregation. But something else had occurred. In the process Martin Luther King’s life had been irrevocably altered. He would no longer be that substantial leader alone. He would dedicate his entire career and life to overcoming among the most intractable barriers of our society. He would return to Atlanta, assume the pastorate of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and at the same time found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which would in the decade which followed lead the way in ending segregation in all its manifestations throughout the South. The courts found and issued the law ending segregation. But the foot-soldiers kept the issue alive, again and again, with Dr. King, practicing non-violence, leading the way. In many instances, as in Birmingham, Dr. King would follow non-violent confrontation with agreements hammered out to end discrimination. Always, the struggle was fierce and dangerous. But the human spirit prevailed. The alteration of Dr. King’s life from substantial leader to transformational leader was completed.
Dr. King would go on to challenge a vast array of discriminatory practices, segregation everywhere, in housing and employment, and against the violence of war and the crushing burden of economic disadvantage. Then in April 1968, leading a drive on behalf of the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. King was tragically murdered. Dr. King’s legacy is a far more just society than existed a half-century, and more, ago. Yet the wide-spread crushing burdens of poverty are today perhaps the most serious strain on our society. One cannot help but wonder what effect Dr. King might have had on the existence of the two Americas, with all its consequences, economically. We have seen a dramatic rise in gun violence since the last Martin Luther King holiday. Here too, his leadership is missed.
Martin Luther King was one of the few who chose more than the life of prestige laid out before him. He chose to devote his life to addressing the most vexing of our problems. He paid a heavy price on many levels. In the end, he paid with his martyrdom. In remembrance, we honor him for both his valor and his extraordinary achievements. Yet we also venerate him for choosing that rare, risk filled life of transformational leader, for becoming a man who gave his all to deal with intractable issues, and in his time, changed the world he knew. As well, in doing so he set an example for leaders in the present day. For this choice too he should be remembered, and revered.