Editorial: Remembering the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

Something was desperately missing in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Aug. 9, 2014, an unarmed African-American, Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, 28.

Shortly before the shooting, Brown had robbed a nearby convenience store, stealing several cigarillos and shoving the store’s clerk. Notified of the robbery, officer Wilson encountered Brown and Dorian Johnson as they were walking down the middle of a street, blocking traffic. Wilson noticed Brown fit the description of the suspect in the convenience store robbery, and stopped his police car to block Brown and Johnson.

An altercation erupted. Brown and Wilson struggled through the open window of Wilson’s police car, resulting in Wilson’s gun being fired. Brown and Johnson fled, and Wilson took pursuit of Brown.

Wilson fired his gun several times at Brown — for a total of 12 shots throughout the entire altercation, the 12th likely being the fatal shot.

Reports differed among witnesses as to whether and when Brown raised his hands and whether he was moving toward Wilson or away from him when the shots were fired.

Three months later, Nov. 24, 2014, a St. Louis County grand jury found probable cause did not exist to indict Wilson for his actions in the shooting.

After hearing Wilson would not be indicted for his actions, video captured Brown’s stepfather hugging his wife on the top of a car surrounded by a crowd of people. He then shouted repeatedly to the crowd: “Burn this motherf—er down! Burn this b—- down!”

Over the next week, Ferguson fell victim to vandalism, looting and violence, with images on the national news of destroyed and looted McDonald’s restaurants and car lots with vehicles ablaze.

In light of the violence in Ferguson, one must wonder whether the spirit of peaceful non-violence established by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may be dimming in today’s culture of instant cell phone videos, nonsensical tweets and second-by-second personal Facebook updates.

King was born in Atlanta Jan. 15, 1929, the middle child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. He had an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. His father was born Michael King, and he was originally born Michael King Jr., but his father changed both their names to Martin in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther following a family visit to Germany in 1934.

King married Corretta Scott in 1953, and the couple had four children, all of whom went on to be civil rights activists. Corretta Scott King died Jan. 30, 2006.

King was just 39 when he was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. If he were alive today, King would be celebrating his 86th birthday. The nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday, Jan. 19.

In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, King described his first experience with racism at age 6:

From the age of three, I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but he was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school — separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.

We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before. As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it, I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.

My parents would tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.”

King attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. He skipped both the ninth and the 12th grades and entered Morehouse College in 1944 at age 15 without formally graduating from high school.

King was 21 when he was first introduced to the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi at a lecture about Gandhi by Howard University President Mordecai Johnson in the spring of 1950. King explained in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.:

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

King, a Baptist minister, became the most recognized civil rights activist of his time and was the leader of the civil rights movement in the United States until his death. Among his notable accomplishments, King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president; and led the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Later in his career, King focused on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.

In 1964, at the age of 35, King became the youngest man, the second American and the third black man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means.

In a Jan. 7, 1968, sermon titled “Resolutions,” King said: “And I’m simply saying this morning, that you should resolve that you will never become so secure in your thinking or your living that you forget the least of these. … In some sense, all of us are the least of these, but there are some who are least than the least of these. I try to get it over to my children early, morning after morning, when I get a chance. As we sit at the table, as we did this morning in morning devotions, I couldn’t pray my prayer without saying, ‘God, help us, as we sit at this table to realize that there are those who are less fortunate than we are. And grant that we will never forget them, no matter where we are.’ And I said to my little children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

A bill creating a legal public holiday in honor of King was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Aug. 2, 1983. The federal holiday was first recognized in 1986. King was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, a group of more than 100 protesters marched against alleged police brutality in downtown Rockford. One of the protester’s signs included the quote “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” from King.

The events that occurred in Ferguson in 2014 are a reminder that our nation still has not yet fulfilled the transformation and change of heart called for by King. The future will be brighter if we embrace daily the light of love before hate and peace above violence embodied in the enduring spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

From the Jan. 14-20, 2015, issue

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