IF HE HAD not been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, where he was in town to lead a group of dispossessed sanitation workers, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 66 on Sunday. Our nation and the larger world community are diminished enormously by his untimely and tragic death.
For those who may be too young to know about the great civil and human rights leader, I'll give some background: King was raised in a close-knit Atlanta family that fostered love, a cohesive and unifying sense of community and encouraged self-esteem and lofty personal and group achievement.
In the early years of his involvement in the struggle for civil and human rights, he had occasion to comment on his beloved and highly revered parents: "My mother, as the daughter of a successful minister, had grown up in comfort. She had been sent to the best available school and college and had, in general, been protected from the worst blights of discrimination. But my father, a sharecropper's son, had met its brutalities first hand, and had begun to strike back at an early age. I remember riding with him one day in my childhood when he accidentally drove past a stop sign. A policeman pulled up to the car and said, 'All right, boy, . . . let me see your license.' Then, pointing to me, [his father said] 'This is a boy, I'm a man, and until you call me one, I will not listen to you.' The policeman was so shocked that he wrote the ticket nervously and left the scene as quickly as possible. Within this heritage, it is not surprising that I had learned to abhor segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable."
During his life, King exemplified an unusual and wondrous capacity to meet hate and adversity with love. The extraordinary fact of King's life was that his love was not passive or theoretical, but an active love that enabled him to affirm: "There is little hope for us until we're tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths and downright ignorance."
As King loved, he worked untiringly and passionately to achieve a society of equity, demonstrable excellence, social justice and fairness. His relentless efforts in concert with other civil rights workers and leaders led to the passage of the 1964, 1965 and 1968 federal civil rights laws. These laws changed the socio-economic, political and educational landscape for all racial minorities.
King gave potent, thoughtful and eloquent expression to an energizing sense of hope in black America. He stated with pride: "I think the greatest victory of this period was something internal. The real victory was what this period did to the psyche of the black man. The greatness of this period was that we armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect . . . we straightened our backs up. And a man can't ride your back unless it is bent."
As King is commemorated over the next several days, let's also not forget those who led the effort to have his birthday declared a federal holiday, including his widow, Coretta Scott King, singer, Stevie Wonder, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
Also remember: Each of us possesses the ability to strike a unique blow for freedom, excellence and social justice in his memory.
Samuel L. Banks is director of the city schools' Department of Compensatory Education and Funded Programs. He writes from Prince George's County.