In 1955 as King led the Montgomery bus boycott, no one would have guessed we’d be celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday by closing schools, showing TV specials and doing community service projects fifty years later.
However, this day should represent the entire civil rights movement, all of the people in it rather than one man. As much as I respect King, it’s unfortunate we name the day after him and lose sight of so many other young men and women who are just as much heroes if not more so than King. I don’t think he would have approved of this.
I wish we would also remember men like James Lawson, who was in actuality the architect of the civil rights movement, coming to the conclusion of living a nonviolent lifestyle as young man reading the teachings of Jesus Christ and living in India for a time to learn tactics from Ghandi. Quoting Jesus he taught the young volunteers to love their enemies rather than respond to hostility and violence in kind. Nonviolent demonstrations grew out of his work, training young college students like Diane Nash, who was a leader in the Nashville sit-ins at white-only lunch counters, helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe (SNCC), and coordinated marches and numerous other actions for voting rights in Alabama. Another of her rank is John Lewis, a poor farmboy who somehow got to seminary and became part of the civil rights movement through the nonviolent sit-ins in Nashville. He was involved in the freedom rides where he was beaten severely and received a fractured skull. Undaunted, he continued to become the chairmen of the SNCC and led the Selma-Montgomery march, where he was again severely assaulted. King became a symbol for the movement because he was a good speaker, charismatic leader, and attracted national media attention. But other humble workers made the civil rights movement successful.
A great book on this is The Children by David Halberstam. It was one of my textbooks for my American 1960s class two years ago, but a page-turner and one of the best-written books I’ve ever read. It also shows the strong influence of Christians and Christianity in the movement, which has been so downplayed by many secular or liberal commentators. I was surprised at how many reverends, seminarians, and devout Christians joined the cause, even though some weird spiritualism, Marxism, and Islam came to play a part later. Whether the Bible allows for civil disobedience is a discussion for another day, but in any case we can admire the sacrifice, dedication, love, and in some cases Christian faith of the civil rights workers.