Martin Luther King Jr
When you sit back and take in the phenomenal achievements of black history, it is natural to be moved to admiration by some of the great figures of black history including Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and many more. But one name stands head and shoulders above the rest and that is the name Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King's legacy of change and his call for the end of racism and segregation in American society is without question the voice that has moved America as no other has done. For while many have showed tremendous leadership, Dr. King clearly demonstrated a vision for the future of America in which black and white worked, lived, played and worshipped together as one society not two.
The honor and reverence all American's have for Martin Luther King, Jr. is evident in how honored his name has become since his tragic death at the assassins hand in 1968. All around this nation, virtually every U.S. city has named a major road after the great civil rights leader. He singularly has a U.S. holiday named after him, an honor usually reserved for presidents. He has been honored on the U.S. stamp and no school child gets through his or her elementary education without knowing the key phrases from Dr. King's famous "I have a dream" speech.
Dr. King's career in civil rights is inseparable from the early struggles of the civil rights movement from the late fifties going forward. Our images of him walking side by side with his people unifying them behind his leadership and facing tremendous hatred and racial bigotry to take a stand in America to say without compromise that racism would not stand in this country any more.
Those images of Dr. King working and marching with others who shared his courage to step out and make a change for the better are indelible on the American consciousness. For Dr. King was not a leader who sent his messages from the safety and comfort of a far away office. No, he was there, in the midst of his people, marching on Washington arm in arm with the everyday men and women of this country who banded together to fight the evils of racism. It took tremendous courage for Dr. King to take to the streets with his people like he did and it was a risk that eventually cost him his life. But his courage inspired thousands to be courageous too and be one people, one brotherhood who would no longer allow racism to be the rule of law in America.
Dr. King's famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August 28, 1963 has become so central to our American heritage that it is quoted with reverence by scholars, students and all people seeking their own inspiration from this great man. This speech ranks with Kennedy's inaugural speech and the Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as words that have inspired this nation as none other have been able to do. It is impossible not to get goose bumps reading these key phrases from that historic speech.
*I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"
*"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
*"Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring
The Underground Railroad
Sometimes when a people are under their most oppression, that is when they truly are at their best it seems. And that adage could certainly be applied to those who operated the Underground Railroad in the 19th century while slavery was still the law of the land in America.
The Underground Railroad was a means by which literally tens of thousands of slaves were able to escape their oppressors and make their way north to free states and a chance for freedom. It was so secretive that even to speak of it meant discovery and terrible punishment. But worse that that if it had been discovered by those who would stop slaves from finding their way out, it would have meant the end of hope for thousands of African Americans who were enduring the injustice of slavery.
The term "The Underground Railroad" was itself a code because that actual mechanism for moving slaves to freedom was not a railroad at all. It was a series of stops, connected by obscure routes that wound their way through the countryside. The routes were twisted and illogical so those seeking to catch slaves and return them to bondage would be hard pressed to figure out the ways those seeking freedom might travel.
There was no published route for the Underground Railroad. "Passengers" made their way from safe house to safe house taking refuge in homes, churches and other out of the way locations that became known as "stations" to those in the know. Very often, the people who ran the stations along the path had no idea how long the railroad was or anything about the whole route. They simply knew enough to receive their "passengers", do all they could for their health and care and send them along with instructions on how to reach the next station.
The routes were treacherous and difficult. Slaves trying to reach freedom usually walked the routes from station to station to avoid public gathering places where slave chasers might find them and send them back to their owners in the south. And just as there was no real "railroad" to the Underground Railroad, the routes themselves were not actually under the ground. However many times at the safe houses, the owners will secure their guests in tunnels under the house or under a farm building.
At one such safe house in Nebraska City, Nebraska, there is a tunnel from the house to the barn so that if the farmer was feeding a needy family, they could quickly "disappear" if slave hunters arrived without notice. There were also roughly dug out bedrooms and crude accommodations under those houses to provide as much comfort and opportunities to rest and recover as was humanly possible under such difficult conditions.
We cannot leave our consideration of this phenomenal network without recognizing the courage of those who ran the "stations" to take in slaves, harbor them, feed them and care for their needs and help them along the way to try to do what they could to strike back at this inhuman practice of human slavery. It is a testimony to humanity that people would overcome their prejudices and reach out to strangers, putting their own homes and families at risk to help a downtrodden people in their time of great need.
And we must take a solemn moment and look back on a dark time in American and Black history when such measures were necessary. But the Underground Railroad spoke loudly that real Americans would not sit idly by and watch their fellow man suffer unjustly. There is no doubt that tens of thousands of lives were saved by these anonymous heroes who didn't do it for reward or recognition. They did it because it was the right thing to do and the thing God would expect them to do. It is an inspiration to us all in this day to lay down our own prejudices and bond together as brothers to resist prejudice, bigotry and mans cruelty to man because of these evils. If we do that we will know in our hearts, like those slaves on the railroad and the station owners knew, that there would come a better day.
A Troubled Time
From 1955 to 1965 there was a war right in the middle of America. No, it wasn't a war like World War II or the Revolutionary War. It was a war for the heart and soul of this country to determine once and for all if America was really going to be a land of equal opportunity for all. It is a war that eventually took on the name of "The Civil Rights Movement."
We must make no mistake, this was not just a shouting match. Some of the events that we even remember today became quite brutal and deadly. Those who fought in this war on both sides were deadly serious about the causes they represented and willing to fight and even die to see their cause succeed. The war waged for years and steady progress was made but not without tremendous sacrifice by the leaders of the movement who were committed to a giving a new meaning to the phrase "set my people free."
In all of black history, there may be no more significant a time since the Civil War when the rights of African Americans were so deeply fought and won. The tensions in the country had been building. When the Supreme Court mandated desegregation in the schools in the historic case Brown versus the Board of Education, the stage was set. But it was on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white man that the movement finally took shape and became a titanic struggle for the rights of African Americans in America. That first battle brought to the front line one of the most important figures to fight for Civil Rights of that era, the Reverend Martin Luther King.
This tremendous struggle for freedom was never easy and was often marked with violence. Over the next ten years some of the most important milestone in black history took place including...
*1957 - President Eisenhower had to send federal troops to Arkansas to secure admission to Central High School by nine black students.
*1960 - The sit-in at Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina set the stage for nonviolent protest that was used with great success for the rest of the struggle. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience became a staple of the civil rights movement because of the influence of Martin Luther King.
*1963 - The historic March on Washington in which over 200,000 people gathered to hear Dr. Kings famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
*1964 - President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that was the most significant event of his presidency and one he believed deeply in, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
*1965 - The assignation of Malcolm X and the Watts race rights.
*1965 - President Johnson takes another bold step to accelerate the civil rights movement implementing Affirmative Action when he issues Executive Order 11246.
This short list is just a few of the highlights of this troubled time in which the rights of all citizens of American, black and white and of all colors were being redefined both on the streets, in the courts and in the different branches of government. In the years to come there would be great steps forward. One by one, every area of American life would see breakthroughs by African Americans in the areas of sports, entertainment, education and politics. There were many proud moments and there were moments of tremendous shame and heinous acts committed by both white and black people. But through all that struggle, the society continued to grow and adapt to the will of the people as has always been the tradition in American culture.
The struggle is far from over. Discrimination and hate speech continue to be a problem to this day. And while it is easy to reflect on those days of struggle with regret, we can also look at them with pride. We can be proud of the great leaders who demonstrated tremendous courage and wisdom to lead this nation to a better way of life. And we can be proud of America because it is here where such a struggle can result in equality and freedom for all citizens, not just a few.
Martin Luther King S Dream
In the history of any great people, sometimes there is a singular moment that so sums up that struggle and challenges the hearts of the people of the time that this moment becomes one that is both historic and mythical. In the long history the African American in this country, one such singular moment was the delivery of what has come to be referred to as the "I have a dream" speech during the historic March on Washington in August of 1963.
There are many things about this speech that are so poetic that the text of the speech has become one of the great historic texts of the nation's history as well as of black history. That is why virtually any school child can recite the most stirring words from the speech which are...
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
What is most striking about this text if you read the entire text is the hope. And it's a wonderful tradition for every family to read this speech, perhaps on Martin Luther's King's birthday which is now a national holiday. Dr. King called upon his people to look up and look with hope toward tomorrow. But more than that, he called on all people to work together toward a shared hope, a hope of fulfilling the American dream that he discusses with such passion in his words.
The setting for the speech was on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, within view of the Congress, the reflecting pool and the White House on the National Mall in the center Washington D.C. Dr. King called it hallowed ground reflecting his deep reference and respect for the icons of this country and his deep love of country which too comes through in the speech.
But it is a speech of struggle because he spoke of the fact that black people in America were still not living in an openly free and equal status with all other citizens. Dr King did not loose touch with the reality of the tough lives African Americans were living in the United States. That is why this speech is so perfectly crafted and so perfectly delivered. It combines the harsh reality and resolve by black leaders and the African American population to make the world better for themselves and their children with a hope and an optimism that this was a country that would not put up with the oppression and discrimination that has kept black people down ever since slavery.
It is a speech that issued a call to action in the time frame of "Now" which was a call to action that many in the houses of power in our country took heed. They did take action immediately to get the process of renewal and repair of a broken social system moving in the right direction. One of the outcomes of this speech was the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 which changed the fabric of the country forever in the legal restrictions it put on discrimination in every aspect of American life.
If it had not been for the "I have a dream" speech, the March on Washington on that hot and humid August day might have just been another in the many protests and events of the civil rights era. Instead it became an iconic moment in American and black history that changed Dr. King into a national hero for black and white people alike and energized a movement and a nation to take matters into their own hands and make thing better for all people.
The Fifteenth Amendment
When the Civil War came to an end, it was important to take the big accomplishments and transition them into the law of the land before any ground was lost as reconstruction returned the nation to one country rather than two warring parties. The upheaval of society that the abolition of slavery represented and the massive surge forward for black history was so important that it was important to make it permanent with amendments to the constitution so the gains made during that bloody battle would not be lost again.
The work that needed to be done to change a nation from one of slavery to one of equality started with three important amendments to the constitution. The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery forever and the fourteenth amendment reversed the negative effects of the Dred Scott decision providing equal protection under the law for all citizens of this country regardless of race, color or creed.
But the fifteenth amendment went further than just establishing the basic human rights of the African American community. It made a change so fundamental to how America works that its ramifications were sweeping and far reaching down to this day. The text of the amendment is direct and elegant...
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
This was a tremendous leap forward for the black community when this amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870 because it finally meant that the African American population in this country could stand up and be counted and start making a mark on politics and with it how decisions are made in this country. It was a proud moment when the very first black man to cast a vote came the very next day when Thomas Mundy Peterson voted in a school board election in the town of Perth Amboy, New Jersey
But like so many other great advances in black history, earning the right to vote didn't automatically make it easy to vote. There was staunch resistance to actually allowing blacks to go to the polling booth in many communities across the country. The Klu Klux Klan engaged in intimidation tactics to try to keep African Americans home from the polls. In Louisiana, the mob attempts to stop the institutions of a legally elected and integrated local governments had to be broken up by federal troops sent in by Ulysses S. Grant.
Probably the most serious threat to the actual workability of the fifteenth amendment was the introduction of the poll tax and other registration tricks that were used such as literacy tests and voter qualification tests clearly designed to deny the right to vote to African Americans. This practice became such a problem that it instigated the passage of the twenty fourth amendment which outlawed poll taxes which were only designed to usurp the rights of African Americans to vote.
But these desperate attempts could not stop the march of justice and democracy to assure that voting rights were available to all Americans. Before long blacks were occupying positions of influence and decision making in state legislatures and even at the federal level. It's been a long struggle but even in the last few decades we have seen positions of high honor and influence held by qualified African Americans such as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. And if Barrack Obama wins the democratic nomination, that will be yet another break through for a proud man and a proud people.
The Proud Black American Soldier
The legacy of military valor and achievement by African Americans is truly a source of pride for African Americans in all walks of life. But the changes the military has undergone to accept the presence of black men in uniform has very much mirrored the struggles for integration in society at large.
The history of truly heroic achievements by African American soldiers is just as honorable as any in military history. They include...
*March 3, 1770 - The first American to die in the Revolutionary war was a black soldier by the name of Crispus Attucks. He was killed when British soldiers fired on a peaceful gathering in Boston, Massachusetts starting the war that lead to America's independence.
*In World War II - Vernon J. Baker took leadership in attacking dug in German machine gun emplacements destroying six and killing twenty six German soldiers. He received the Congressional Metal of Honor for his bravery.
*December 7, 1941 - During the horrendous Pearl Harbor attacks, a black galley cook by the name of Dorie Miller on board the USS West Virginia rushed to the deck as his fellow soldiers lay wounded and dying all around him. He valiantly took control of the machine gun emplacement on the deck and repelled the dive bombers keeping them from further killing and injuring his comrades in arms. For his courage, Dorie Miller received the first Silver Star of World War II.
These are just a few of the hundreds of stories of courage and outstanding service to country made by black men throughout America's history. Within the military, racial prejudice has long gone by the wayside because when men stand side by side in battle, they are brothers first, fellow soldiers second and people of race a distant third if at all. Battle has a way of equalizing all men and real soldiers know that. So the military has been an opportunity to cultivate equality and acceptance because it is a culture where being a good solider is always more important than any petty prejudices any man might carry.
But it took longer for the military as an institution to catch up with what soldiers new instinctively on the battlefield - that all men are equal when they are brothers in arms. Finally on July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order Number 9981 which stated in no uncertain terms what the U.S. Military's policy was concerning racial segregations...
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
We can be grateful for courageous leadership such as President Truman's and for the leadership of the military establishment to set the tone for the eventual social condemnation of segregation. While it is regrettable that American has had to sustain an army to battle her enemies over the centuries, there is no question that the high ethical and moral conduct that is needed for military men to perform in combat follows those men into society when their service to their country is through.
And that is one of the many reasons that the desegregation of the military dictated that not only would racism no longer be tolerated by the American military, it would soon be viewed as ignorant and unacceptable in American society as well. While there is still work to be done to make that dream a reality, accomplishments such as these we have discussed lay the groundwork for a better world of integration for all American citizens.
There are a lot of "firsts" in the long history of African Americans in this country. And with each one, a new plateau of equality and acceptance was achieved. But it can also be said without exception that each one came at a price for the brave people who fought hard to improve the lives of their people and achieve that great breakthrough in their chosen field.
These principles are certainly true in the arena of sports and especially baseball. Baseball has long been considered the great American pastime. So on April 15th, 1947 when Jackie Robinson walked out onto the field to be the first black to shatter the color barrier in professional baseball in a game between his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, he was making a dramatic statement.
But this was no day of parades and celebration for Robinson. As is the case in so many great events in black history, that was time of tremendous racism, prejudice and discrimination against African Americans. Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary baseball player. In his first year alone he played 151 games, led the league in his base stealing ability and was awarded with the first rookie of the year award ever given. While Jackie played with the Dodgers, they went to the World Series six times and he played in six all star games as well. He was a solid performer and a tremendous benefit to his team for which he won the most valuable player award in 1949 and helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955.
As is often the case, it took some brave leadership from supporters outside of the African American community to see to it that prejudice would not keep a brilliant career such as Jackie Robinsons from reaching its true potential. When some of the Brooklyn Dodger players refused to sit next to Jackie Robinson and showed other hostile attitudes towards him because of his race, management stood firm that if they could not become a team with all members of the club, they were welcome to go play baseball elsewhere.
But one of the most emotional and heart warming moments that has become a shining example of the fall of racial bigotry in this country came in a game in Cincinnati Ohio in Robinson's rookie year. As the fans at the game began to heckle and shout racial slurs at Robinson, one of his fellow Dodger's, Pee Wee Reese, took a stand to bring this kind of behavior to a stop. His statement that racism would no longer rule in baseball was simple and elegant. As fans shouted their hateful remarks, Reese walked out on the field and put his arm around Jackie Robinson clearly communicating that this man was a teammate and a valued ball player on that team. The taunts ended abruptly and Reese and Robinson went on to do what they came to that game to do, play outstanding baseball.
Jackie himself never made his baseball career about race. He chose to demonstrate dramatically what Dr. Martin Luther King later described when he said that the day must come when we judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. Jackie Robinson made his stand for equality by showing that at the heart of his character was a superior baseball player and a valued member of the baseball community.
Even when Robinson spoke of his days pioneering baseball for other African Americans, his words demonstrated that he only wanted the chance to be tested fairly along side all other athletes, no more and no less. His simple statements really summarized so much of what the civil rights movement was all about when he said, "You can hate a man for many reasons, color is not one of them." And later in his career he stated it again beautifully when he said, "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... all I ask is that you respect me as a human being."
This emphasis on the individual, on the quality of all men and all Americans and their right to be judged for who they are as people, not subjected to prejudice as African Americans is a perfect summation of the struggle of African Americans everywhere.
Jordon And Ali
Throughout black history, great black athletes have served as role models to America's youth, in a way that may not have been possible for others leaders. And to be sure, some of these great heroes of athletics have become virtually godlike to all sports fans, not just those in the black community. Michael Jordon's ability on the basketball field during his career at times seems to be virtually superhuman. And the career of Mohammed Ali sent such a powerful message of black pride to black and white America that he virtually transformed social perception of the black man through sheer talent and attitude.
Before Mohammed Ali came along, the idea of a black boxer, even a very good black boxer becoming such a central figure for black pride seemed unlikely. But Ali demonstrated something to the youth of the African American community that was so inspirational that it helped to transform their world view like no other public figure could have done.
With his swagger and braggadocio, Ali stood out as a proud black man in such a way that had never been seen before. His use of rhyme with such phrases as "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" to his self promotion maintaining "I'm pretty", that sent a message to black and white admirer alike. And that message was loud and clear. Ali was black and he was proud and other black men and women in America have just as much reason to be proud as he was.
This was an important message because coming out of years of oppression, it was sometimes difficult for black youth to gain a sense of pride and the self assurance needed to get out there and be a success. It took the work of great black role models such as Mohammed Ali to let them know that it is allowable for you to be proud and to be great as well. For Ali didn't back up his claims with just boasts. He was truly a great black athlete as well. So when Ali bragged that he was "pretty", he showed that the way he fought truly was a thing of beauty.
That same excellence and how it has been used to inspire the black community can be found in the phenomenal career of Michael Jordon. In the same way that Ali's talent seemed to eclipse even the genre of boxing, Jordon was so phenomenal at basketball that he became an icon of excellence and skill and a role model for black youth across the country. Both of these men recognized that God had given them this tremendous talent and the opportunities to reach their potential. And they worked hard to be a role model to their community so others would be inspired to be their best as well.
Moreover, great black sports heroes also provided healing by setting a high standard of excellence for sports fans of all races to admire. It wasn't just black sports fans who adored the work of Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon. They became true heroes to anyone to whom sports was an important part of life.
Sports is an arena where men and woman can come to socialize and find common ground. Like entertainment, there is a world of sports that makes comrades of all who enjoy the exploits of sports heroes whether on the baseball diamond, the football field, the boxing arena or the basketball stadium. And sports fans have a standard that they value their heroes that is based on talent, achievement and ability to do that one thing everybody in sports admires - to be a winner. And Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon were certainly embodiment of great black men who were also in every way winners. And we all admire that regardless of race, color or creed.
The Dred Scott Decision
Not every significant event in the timeline of black history is a victory. In fact, many of the huge setbacks for African Americans in this country were the result of some very bad events that hurt the cause of civil liberties for Blacks for a long time. Such is the case in the infamous Dred Scott Decision.
It is important to get the context of why the Dred Scott case is so significant and to understand the facts of the case so we can be truly informed citizens. Dred Scott was a slave during that dark time in our history when slavery was legal. But the difference was that his owner took Dred Scott with him in a move to Wisconsin which was a free state where Scott lived in that legal status for many years. The movement on behalf of Dred's owner was because of military orders.
None of this was itself unusual until the master was again relocated to Missouri, a slave state and then the master passed away. The result was that Dred Scott's legal status was in question because he had spent so many years so recently as a resident of a free state. Abolitionists and others opposing slavery rallied to Dred Scott's defense and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.
It was at the Supreme Court level that the decision was handed down that inflamed the divide between North and South in this country. The court decided that because of Scott's slave status, he was never and could never be a citizen of the United States and therefore had no standing in the eyes of the law. Hence he was trapped in his slave status despite his most recent residency.
This was a huge slap in the face to every free state in the union because it essentially nullified their status as a free state entirely. The court went on to make some truly astounding rulings related to the Dred Scott Case dictating that that Congress had no authority to keep slavery from coming about in new territories or states coming into the union and even declaring The Missouri Compromise which set in place the border between North and South to be unconstitutional.
This case set off such a wave of social and political repercussions that it could be considered to be a powder keg that set off the Civil War leading to the defeat of the south and the fall of slavery in America forever. Abraham Lincoln vehemently opposed the Dred Scott decision and spoke passionately against it only deepening the divide and the inevitability of war in America.
The lessons of the Dred Scott Case are many. For one thing it showed that even our revered Supreme Court which we count on for ultimate wisdom in all things ethical and legal, can be flawed in their judgment. No Supreme Court justice today would deny that these decisions were deeply flawed and failed to recognize the ultimate immorality of slavery or the fundamental denial of human rights to slaves that was guaranteed by our constitution.
But looking at the Dred Scott case in context, one wonders if it took such a dramatically upsetting ruling to put the wheels in motion to finally bring change to this country. There is no question that the Civil War was a bloody and horrible part of our national past. But the outcome of ending slavery forever was a fundamental need for this free society to continue to grow. Dred Scott had its place in that drama and in a strange way, we can be grateful it happened because of the outcome. It is very sad to see that it takes something so awful to make good come. But that was true in pre-Civil War days and, sadly, it is still true today.
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