Next Monday, America will
celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.holiday, which was first observed as a federal holiday
in 1986 after being signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Schoolchildren around the world
learn about the achievements of King and he serves as a worldwide source of
hope and inspiration for all those who struggle against injustice. There is no
eternal flame at his gravesite in Atlanta, and there doesn't need to be,
because the fire of inspiration he lit keeps burning after more than 50 years.
He is rightly praised for his efforts to end segregation in
the United States and his efforts were so successful that it boggles the mind
to look back even five decades and understand just how deeply ingrained was the
curse of racism in our country and to what extent it was institutionalized.
Less than half a century ago, there were still restaurants,
bus stations and stores with separate entrances for white and "colored" people.
It's not hard to find pictures of restrooms labeled "For colored ladies only"
or of hotels who would not accept anything but whites.
There was even a chain of three restaurants in Salt Lake
City, Seattle and Portland, Ore., called "Coon Chicken Inn" whose mascot was a
grotesque representation of a thick-lipped, wide-eyed black man holding a plate
of fried chicken. Only in the late 1950s did public outrage force the closure
of the last of the three stores.
The justice system was so deeply stacked against black men
and women that it was nearly impossible for whites to be prosecuted in any
places for the murder of black citizens. Grand juries would simply refuse to
indict a white person for the crime. And all-white juries granted a free pass
if, for some reason, a prosecutor brought such a case to trial.
Forget about the right to vote if you were a black person
living in the southern United States. Impossible literacy tests and poll taxes
took care of that.
Yes, it's hard to imagine the America that existed before
the civil rights movement, where whites ruled unchallenged and an entire nation
of African-American citizens simply accepted their fate, because to do
otherwise meant certain imprisonment or death. It seems like a scene from a
scary movie and completely unreal.
Of course, there were many heroes besides King who fought
the battle against discrimination. One of the most underrated was President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson, who bucked the wishes of his fellow southerners and
parlayed the assassination of JFK into the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Rights Act of 1964, fully aware it would cost his party dearly for half a
century or more.
We celebrate them all on the King holiday, all of the men
and women beaten with clubs, attacked by police dogs and drenched by fire hoses
as they protested the denial of their rights. Civil rights would have
inevitably become an issue without King; but with him as a moral leader, the
transition was far less bloody and violent than it would have been otherwise.
Even as we celebrate the legacy of King, we should also
never forget that our own federal government spied upon and harassed him
throughout his life. The FBI wiretapped his telephones wherever he went and
planted listening devices in his hotel rooms to uncover details of his personal
The knowledge that King was a serial womanizer in the style
of JFK or Bill Clinton has been mostly suppressed but is a fact that his
closest aides, not to mention the FBI files and tapes, fully corroborate.
To make history even more complicated, the wiretaps were
authorized in writing by Robert F. Kennedy in his capacity as attorney general
in his brother's administration. To his credit, Kennedy was later ashamed of
having done so, but it was on his authority that the FBI's harassment of King
was made legal.
The government harassment of King continued until his death.
The troublesome files and tapes of his sexual escapades have been sealed by a federal judge, but they remain a testament to just how badly the government,
specifically the FBI, wanted to discredit him and ruin his efforts to bring
about peaceful change.
Entire libraries have been written about King so to attempt
to summarize his legacy in a few words is a foolish endeavor at best. The
lessons the nation learned through him were immense. The governmental response
of harassing and tormenting him remains a source of great shame and a reminder
to never fully trust the government.
But his achievements stand tall as a moral victory for
American values, as represented in justice, peaceful protest and opposition to
needless military action, for King in his later years was as much a peace
activist as a civil rights activist.
So whether you have a day off work for the King holiday or
not, it's worth your while to take a few moments to reflect on the legacy of
this remarkable man who endured such suffering, achieved a few victories and
returned home to a grave in Georgia. We owe him immensely.