Sunday, January 16, 2011
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Idaho State Journal on January 16, 2011.)
In 1958 my wife Barbara and I, and our young family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, from Colorado. We headed for Emory University where I would begin a doctorate program in Sociology. We looked forward to the chance of a gateway to an academic career, while living in the South during a time of great ferment and change. We read editorials by Ralph McGill in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sounding the knell of an insular and defensive culture of the past. He saw a growing alliance between blacks and moderate whites marking steps toward the dawn of a new south.
In the spring of 1960, nearing graduation, Barbara and I attended worship services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Dr. King had joined his father, “Daddy” King, as co-pastor. In 1955 as the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King had led the bus boycott, with 30,000 blacks walking away from the buses. The boycott provoked a federal court order that desegrated buses in Montgomery, prompting more than a hundred cities across the South to integrate buses. No one knew what would happen next in the civil rights fight.
We wanted to get a personal impression of Dr. King. He had a charismatic presence, and gave a compelling message that evening. He drew upon prophetic passages of the scriptures made relevant to the Civil rights movement, such as the words of Amos, “Hear the words of the Lord: Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever flowing steam.” That evening reviewing what we had read and seen, we believed that King could become the voice and catalyst of the continuing Movement.
How did King develop the strategy of nonviolent protests? Taking lessons from Thoreau, and from Gandhi in India, he understood that nonviolent protests could raise public attention and tension over injustices. Consider the Selma March, in early 1965. The March challenged the Proclamation of Governor Wallace banning the plan on the grounds of highway congestion and possible violence. The violence came as state troopers and deputies struck, kicked, and knocked the marchers down, shooting and killing one. Frank Johnson, Judge of the Middle District Federal Court in Alabama, got the word of the President to back his order, and approved the rights to petition and march for the redress of grievances. He ordered Wallace to provide protection “for citizens in a constitutional right.” The showdown had national repercussions.
In August, 1965, just 5 months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Years later Judge Frank Johnson called the Voting Acts Right “the most important piece of legislation this century as far as blacks are concerned.’ King knew that nonviolence was essential to win the empathy and support of the wider community. He called himself “the conscience of the state.”
His assassination in 1968 in Memphis ended the first heady phase of the movement. The violence of the Selma march, King’s jail sentence in Birmingham, and the gathering of 250,000 people at Lincoln’s Memorial to hear King’s ringing address, had contributed to the passage of the Voting Act. Much had been accomplished but the “beloved community” King hoped for when all people would be treated with respect, dignity and love, had not arrived. King was asked at one time why the government should interject itself in civil society; no law could force white people to associate with blacks. He replied, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important also.”
Ahead there were decades of difficult steps to implement integration, and grant the promised rights to all citizens. In 1968, a few months after King’s death, I became the president of Huntingdon College, a liberal arts college, in Montgomery, Alabama. Over a 25 year tenure in that position and place it was a privilege to help advance the goals Dr. King had for a new south and a changed nation. The sons of Governor Wallace and Judge Frank Johnson became students and friends at Huntingdon.
How can we assess King’s legacy? Thomas Paine in his pamphlet, Common Sense, won over an undecided citizenship to commit their honor, property and lives to the war for independence. He concluded his appeal for liberty and independence with the phrase: “We have it in our power to begin the world anew.” At another time of oppression Dr. King persuaded people that a critical moment of decision was at hand. He released the latent energy, and raised hopes for liberty of another kind. He persuaded ordinary people to do extraordinary things to advance gains for the most important issue of America since the civil war. He challenged us to “begin the world anew,” to build an integrated society with fairness and opportunity for all.
Can we connect the dots from King’s legacy to Barack Obama? In his book, Audacity of Hope – Thoughts of Reclaiming the American Dream, Obama wrote: “The notion that one isn’t confined in one’s dreams… a severing of the psychological shackles of slavery and Jim Crow, is perhaps the most important legacy of the civil rights.” In the fly leaf he dedicated the book to his grandmother and mother. In the last paragraph of the book he mentions two other names of those who fired his dreams – Lincoln and King.
As a Senator he liked to take a run after dark from the Washington monument to the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Looking over the reflecting pool between the monuments he imagines the crowd stilled by Dr. King’s cadence. “In that place I think about America and those who built it…and those like Lincoln and King who ultimately laid down their lives in service of perfecting an imperfect union.
It is that process I wish to be a part of.
My heart is filled with love for this country.”
Dr. Jackson became the Director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello in 1993, retiring again in 2001. He teaches courses for seniors in the New Knowledge Adventures Program of ISU’s Continuing Education Division. He is President of the local ISU chapter of Sigma Xi, the national Science Research Society. The chapter presents monthly Science Cafes to bring members of the community into informal conversations with science researchers on public issues.