By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest White man. Even winners of our highest honours face the class colour bar. With their right hand they raise to high places the great who have dark skins, and with their left, they slap us down to keep us in “our places”.
“Yes, America you have stripped me of my garments, you have robbed me of my precious endowment.”
We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime. We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule. So, as we gird ourselves to defend democracy from foreign attack, let us see to it that increasingly at home we give fair play and free opportunity for all people.”
Excerpt from speech “The Negro and the Constitution” by then 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr delivered in April 1944 at First Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia, USA.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave several speeches in his short time on earth (assassinated on April 4, 1968 at 39 years old) “The Negro and the Constitution” delivered in April 1944 when he was 15 years old is recognized as his first public speech. Not surprisingly, in September of that year (1944) the 15-year-old entered university. He began his post-secondary education at Morehouse, one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the USA. Although he was at least three years younger than his classmates when he entered university, according to the authors of “The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr” (published 1992): “King was socially active. Not only was he president of the sociology club and a member of the debating team, student council, glee club and minister’s union, but he also joined the Morehouse chapter of the NAACP and played on the Butler Street YMCA basketball team.”
This side of King has become lost over the years to where he is now mostly considered a one dimensional dreamer only identified with his “I Have a Dream” speech which he delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
As African-American author Jake Lamar wrote in his article “King, Minus Sentimental Goo: A Bold, Dangerous Radical” published December 20, 1999: “Is there any 20th-century American icon who has been more banalized, neutralized and homogenized by mythology than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? From the day he was martyred in 1968, the civil rights crusader has been enshrined as a romantic visionary: the healing, non-violent, non-threatening integrationist.
“Honoured as a national holiday, King’s birthday gives Americans, Black and White, conservative and liberal alike, the annual opportunity to appropriate his legacy and slather it with sentimental goo, to squeeze the complex ideas of a true revolutionary into four wistful words: ‘I Have a Dream’.”
Reading his several speeches, it is obvious that King was a revolutionary freedom fighter and an activist who used his eloquence to define and defend the cause for which he eventually paid the supreme sacrifice. In his speech “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” which he first delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 when he was 25 years old and then on May 17, 1956 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, in an ecumenical program commemorating the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in “Brown v. Board of Education”, King indicted the American power structure as evil, similar to the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt, as told in the Bible:
“In our own struggle for freedom and justice in this country we have gradually seen the death of evil. Many years ago the Negro was thrown into the Egypt of segregation, and his great struggle has been to free himself from the crippling restrictions and paralizing effects of this vicious system. For years it looked like he would never get out of this Egypt. The closed Red Sea always stood before him with discouraging dimensions. There were always those Pharoahs with hardened hearts, who, despite the cries of many a Moses, refused to let these people go.
“As we look back we see segregation caught in the rushing waters of historical necessity. Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.”
Many viewed King’s criticism of America’s White leaders and government policies and practices as radical. On Good Friday, April 12, 1963 King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting the White supremacist segregation laws of the city and was kept in solitary confinement. The city government had obtained a state circuit court injunction against African American protesters on April 10. After much discussion with other African American leaders, King decided to disobey the court order declaring: ‘‘We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.’’
While King was in jail he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in response to an open letter written by eight White religious leaders (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray, the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) published on April 12, 1963, after King was arrested, condemning his activism and leadership role in the Civil Rights struggle.
King wrote in part: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s White power structure left the Negro community with no alternative. We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait”. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your Black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
These are not the words of a man who was merely a dreamer waiting for the benevolence of White people for rescue; King willingly put his life on the line to spend time in a southern jail especially when there were no funds for bail.
Unfortunately, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as eloquent as it was, did not influence the good Christian White people of Birmingham to turn away from their wickedness; instead, the abuse of African-Americans escalated to include the murder of children. Determined to keep African Americans “in their place”, White Americans in Birmingham unleashed a vicious campaign of violence which did not abate even after the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church where four African American girls were killed.
In his final speech on April 3, 1968 the day before he was assassinated, King seemed to have a premonition that his end was near. He had criticized the government for being involved in the Vietnam War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was monitoring his every move and some African Americans were becoming disenchanted with his “turn the other cheek” non-violence philosophy. In that final speech King urged African-Americans to strive for unity, practice self-determination and co-operative economics.
Martin Luther King Jr deserves to be remembered as a drum major for justice, not merely a dreamer.