Why we celebrate MLK Jr. Day

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1986, our country celebrated the first Martin Luther King Jr. day. It all began just four days after King’s April 4, 1968 assassination when U.S. rep. John Conyers Jr., D-MI, first submitted legislation to commemorate the slain civil rights leader’s Jan. 15th birthday. Then in 1970 Congress received petitions with more than six million signatures in favor of the act. Finally, in November 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Act.

Christopher Columbus and George Washington are the only other individuals having a national holiday in their honor. Some critics have questioned why one national leader, regardless of how esteemed, should have his birthday celebrated claiming there were presidents and statesmen who also deserve recognition.

Twenty years ago, Seattle Times reporter Paul Andrews wrote, “The odds against the new holiday were imposing. The arguments opposing it – cost to taxpayers, singling him out over others – have been used for decades to resist creation of any new holiday.” Still, there are imposing reasons for it. The late minister appears not to have been motivated by political strategy or notoriety, but was a nonviolent warrior championing the rights of all men. Born Jan. 15, 1929, in segregated Atlanta to a pastor and a former schoolteacher, King later followed his father’s professional footsteps.

He enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary after earning his Bachelor’s degree in 1948 from Morehouse College in Atlanta. By 1955, he had completed his doctoral dissertation. He and his wife, Coretta Scott King moved to Montgomery, AL, to begin a pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was there that King’s fight for civil rights began when he mobilized the black community during a 382 day boycott of the Montgomery bus lines. It was sparked by an incident when a young African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. At first, the new pastor was reluctant to get involved, but eventually he accepted leadership of the movement.

Rosa Parks is booked.

Rosa Parks is booked.

His leadership was based on “a doctrine of nonviolent protest taking the Christian principle of turning the other cheek out of the pulpit and onto the street,” according to a 1997 A&E television documentary. King said, “We strive to advocate nonviolence and passive resistance and still determine to use the weapon of love.”

Later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. But there had already been a cost to King. He had to overcome arrest, violent harassment, and the bombing of his home. He also began receiving “up to 50 letters or phone calls a day, that he should leave town or face death,” according to King biographer David Garrow. He said, “King was resigned to the fact that his leadership role inevitably meant that sooner or later he would be killed.” King persevered in his nonviolent battle against segregation, despite the fact that the violent persecution against him never ceased. He was stabbed in New York in 1958. He was also jailed in a state penitentiary in the early 1960s for sitting at an Atlanta lunch counter that was for whites’ only.

1963 March onWashingtonIn 1965, there was the “Selma” movement as King Jr. led the cause of gaining equal voting rights, despite documented violence. The recently released movie has been highly debated for historical inaccuracy regarding the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Still, it is not a documentary, but an important Hollywood remembrance of a bloody 50-year-old struggle. Perhaps though, King Jr. is best known for the glorious moment in 1963 when he spoke to a crowd of 250,000 people gathered for the March in Washington, which was organized to support the Civil Rights Bill.

Yet he didn’t want to be remembered for earthly accolades. He told this to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church two months prior to his assassination. That day, King spoke about the kind of funeral he would like to have, wanting there to be no mention of his 1964 Nobel Peace or countless other awards. Rather, he asked that someone say, “Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.”

MLK Jr. was a world changer, but not a perfect man. He was a flawed human being like all of us, who had a dream and followed it, despite the weighty cost. His own Christian theology would assert that he is “free at last,” living in the “promised land.”

Christina Ryan Claypool is an Amy-award winning freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com 

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Black History: The Sad Story of Subtle Segregation

The late Miss Georgia Newsome, (r) Black Historian with her sister, Mrs. Maggie Breaston (l) and blogger, Christina Ryan Claypool (c).

As February ends, it would be remiss not to mention that it’s Black History month. I’d like to tell you that Black History is an inspirational narrative about societal acceptance and positive change, but often it’s not. Sadly, it’s more of a one step forward and two steps back kind of progression. Although sometimes it’s been the other way around. “The ASALH [Association for the Study of African American Life and History has dedicated] … the 2013 Annual Black History Theme to celebrating the anniversary of two important African American turning points – the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1963 March on Washington,” reported the Davenport University Library Services.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In explanation, on August 28, 1963, approximately a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington D. C. There are historical photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waving to the huge crowd. That summer day, the Lincoln Memorial audience heard the Civil Rights leader share his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King spoke passionately about his vision of an America where one day in the future, his children would “… not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

I thought about the progression of racial equality, while celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past January at the Mount Zion Holy Union Church of God in Sidney, an event organized by Rev. Phil Chilcote. Keynote speaker, 73-year-old Dr. Ervin Smith of Columbus, an emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Methesco, a Methodist Seminary, explained what segregation in Georgia looked like in his youth. Dr. Smith shared that he couldn’t go into the main library, restaurants, get the same medical treatment, or drink out of the same drinking fountains as whites, solely because of being black. Eventually, the scholar authored his own books including: “The Ethics of Martin Luther King Jr.,” and “Black Theology: Toward an Inclusive Church,” among others. Segregation affected Smith’s choice of a college as well. “I couldn’t go to the University of Georgia…couldn’t go to Georgia Tech. Why? Because of the color of my skin,” he said. When the educator who obtained his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Illinois moved to Delaware, Ohio, in 1971, he thought he had escaped segregation. Yet he met a different kind of segregation in the north.

Bishop Ernest Wilson, pastor at Mount Zion, says that he could identify with Dr. Smith’s story. After all, he was “reared in Alabama.” He said, “I’ve been here [in Sidney] 52 years, but I remember where I came from.” For Bishop Wilson many of those memories are painful. He said, “I would talk to my mom…I can’t go around here saying, ‘Yes, Sir’ and they calling me a boy.” The 72 year old minister told of other serious injustices when he was teenager. Like seeing a friend stabbed for no reason, whowalked to the doctor’s offices with his intestines in his hands, only because he was black.” Bishop Wilson defines, “Equality, [as] the state or quality of being equal…we just wanted to be treated fairly,” he said. “One of the great deceptions I had 52 years ago when I came to Shelby County… [I] was really surprised some things going on here [concerning racism]. Thought I was leaving those things behind,” said the pastor. During the sixties, he found out that Blacks could only live in certain neighborhoods, and that there were still local businesses where he couldn’t get service.

I listened as both older African American men portrayed growing up in the segregated south. Escaping to the Midwest, believing they would be accepted for who they were. Although often they were met with a subtle segregation, that was a difficult enemy to combat. In past interviews with Lima’s Black History expert, the now deceased Miss Georgia Newsome, she and her sister, Mrs. Maggie Breaston, also spoke of the subtle segregation they experienced many decades ago moving here from the south. After all, it happened most everywhere.

Maybe some folks would say, it’s over and we should just forget it. Yet to paraphrase the wise words of late Holocaust survivor, Elisabeth Sondheimer of Lima, Ohio, “If we bury the past, we are likely to repeat it.” Instead, “We’ve got to do better,” urged Bishop Wilson. “Fifty years after Dr. King made the speech I’m finding out…We’ve got to do better.”  But how can we?  Dr. Ervin Smith believes there is a remedy to the racism that seeks to destroy communities. The retired educator said, [We have] “Got to work with our children, work with each other…until we all see each other as children of God.”

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in the Sidney Daily News on Feb. 22, 2013. 

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