What if King had never lived?

Roz Hamlett

January 20, 1992|By Roz Hamlett

A FRAMED PHOTOGRAPH of Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the Chippendale table in my aunt's living room. The picture has sat for years in the same place on a white lace doily, and I would guess my aunt will never replace it with anyone else's picture, or even move it except to dust.

She is not unusual. I know others in her generation who revere Dr. King, Robert Kennedy and JFK, people who create mini-shrines to these men on tables and walls in their homes. No matter what new information may come to light as time passes, these three men -- and particularly King -- retain a place in history that is non-negotiable in the hearts of their admirers.

It is no coincidence, either, that more has been written about King than probably any other African-American. The central branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library alone stocks dozens of copies of more than 50 adult titles and 25 childrens' books on the subject.

Is King worthy of all this devotion? Wouldn't the civil rights movement have occurred anyway even if he had not lived? Couldn't another leader have brought his people out of bondage? Certainly not in my aunt's mind. Yet clearly King did not create the movement singlehandedly.

Loosely formed groups, forerunners of what would later become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were already active prior to the 1957 Montgomery bus boycott. They were working to develop nonviolent strategies of protest to gain equal treatment for black Americans while King, a young minister preaching at the Dexter Avenue Church, was still preoccupied with raising his family and presiding over his flock.

Beginning in 1955, week-long bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, La., and Tallahassee, Fla., won limited successes. The U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 school desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education, was written seven months prior to King's first sermon at Dexter.

The point is that many people played important roles in the early years of the struggle. King's timing was fortuitous, though his presence undoubtedly provided the SCLC with a crucial focus and vision. But the nation was ready for change.

In King, America found a charismatic leader whose message was one of redemption and salvation. It was he who voiced the underlying moral theme of the entire movement and his speeches were heard around the world.

Could the civil rights movement have happened without King? Probably. A moderate voice eventually would have found its way into the mainstream, once it had risen above the angrier, more insistent voices of leaders such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and others for whom King's approach was too slow. It is ironic that King himself initially had been perceived as a radical by both Southern whites and more conservative black church leaders. Most of the black Baptist churches in Baltimore, for example, would not allow King to speak from their pulpits at the beginning of his career.

Would the movement have unfolded in quite the same way without King? probably not. The barriers of a segregated society likely would have occurred would have come down more grudgingly than was the case; the struggle probably would have been more protracted and credit for its victories might have been shared by many lesser-known leaders rather than being largely attributed to one man. Absent King's unshakable commitment to nonviolence,more lives also might have been lost.

Had King never been born, the optimist in me would like to believe that despite a stultifying racial climate of bigotry and hatred, justice eventually would have prevailed. The spectacle of Bull Connor's dogs with their fangs bared being unleashed on innocent people could not have gone on forever, could it? Ultimately, cooler heads and warmer hearts would have put an end to the madness.

I'd like to think so. Something inside me still needs to believe that, ultimately, I will be judged not by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character, as Martin promised.

Talking to a friend a few days ago, I discovered what must be one of the most least remarked tidbits of the civil rights era. It seems that King's first name at birth was Michael. His parents did not decide to change his name to Martin until King was 6 years old. This little known fact is fairly obscure and of negligible importance in the overall scheme of things. But it does point to the fact that much of history is purely happenstance, an incidental collision of people and events.

Whether the civil rights of black could have been won without King is a question that can never be answered with certainty. What is certain is that King had the courage to stand up against a brutal system of racial bigotry and oppression and to do so with remarkable dignity grace. Bigotry still exists, but so does the Constitution with its broad protections for minorities against the tyranny of the majority

There's no need to begrudge King the adulation he receives. Heroes after all are important to our lives, But in our zeal to focus on King and commemorate his birthday, let us not forget that many others also faught,for freedom and died for the cause. And they would have stood up for their beliefs whether Martin Luther King Jr. had lived or not.

Roz Hamlett is the Morning Show producer for WBAL-Radio.

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