Still marching forward

Remembering MLK

January 19, 2004|By Carl O. Snowden

ON JAN. 15, 1954, a young man by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his 25th birthday. At that tender age, he, as many black youths of his era, planned to live his life in a society that had predetermined what and who he may become.

At that time, he was not aware that a social movement was about to impact his life. He later referred to this movement as the "zeitgeist" - defined as the trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular time period. He was on the eve of becoming involved in a whirlwind of social change. He had no way of knowing that he would never celebrate his 40th birthday.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that had been brilliantly argued by a black Maryland NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. The decision required the desegregation of schools. That opinion, known as Brown vs. Board of Education, set in motion a series of events that had a major impact not only on a young Martin Luther King Jr. but on the entire nation.

A year after the Brown decision was handed down, Martin Luther King received his doctorate in systemic theology from Boston University. He was fully aware that there were very few black Americans in 1955 with a doctorate. Indeed, the now Dr. King was an aberration. The vast majority of his peers were being denied the right to an equal education.

In August of that same year, a black teen-ager by the name of Emmett Till visited Money, Mississippi. Shortly after his visit, he was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. It was the brutal murder and mutilation of Emmett Till that so outraged blacks and would create the climate that produced what would later be called the modern civil rights movement.

In 1955, blacks were segregated in public accommodations. On Dec. 1, 1955, a 42-year-old black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

On Dec. 5, Dr. King held a mass church meeting, attended by thousands. During his speech, he said, "Sister Rosa, it is better that we walk in dignity than ride in shame." And on that fateful day, the civil rights movement was launched.

For more than a year, blacks refused to ride on segregated buses. They refused to ride when it was cold or blisteringly hot. Their determination was summed up by a black woman who never attended a college or a university but spoke for all black people when she said, "My feet are tired, but my soul is rested."

Black people were determined to change their social conditions at all cost. And what a cost it was. Thousands were jailed, hundreds lost their jobs and still others died on lonely highways. Eventually, the courts ruled that segregated buses and accommodations were unconstitutional.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would later be called the "Conscience of America." He was in the forefront of one of the greatest nonviolent social movements the world had ever seen.

During his 13 years of leadership, America would be profoundly changed. His impact would be felt around the world. In South Africa, an imprisoned Nelson Mandela would find inspiration in his movement. In China, students would sing, "We Shall Overcome." In Poland, workers in the early 1980s would emulate the tactics of the American civil rights movement.

As we commemorate Dr. King's 75th birthday, let us remind America of what he said in the 20th century that rings true in the 21st century: "Our freedom was not won a century ago, it is not won today; but some small part of it is in our hands, and we are marching no longer by ones and twos but in legions of thousands, convinced now it cannot be denied by any human force."

Carl O. Snowden is intergovernmental relations officer for Anne Arundel County.

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