Martin Luther King - The Dream of Justice
By Jerry Brownstein
Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) devoted his life to the cause of racial and social justice. From 1955 until his assassination in 1968, he was the most visible spokesperson and leader of the civil rights movement in the US. Inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Ghandi, King advanced the cause of civil rights through peaceful protests and civil disobedience. MLK was born in 1929, but his story begins in 1619 - the year that the first African slaves were brought to England’s American colonies. The early English settlers of the southern colonies had found that growing cotton was very profitable, but it was also extremely labour intensive. They needed an inexpensive source of workers and slavery was their answer.
It may be hard to imagine today, but slavery had been a common practice for most of human history.
When the earliest primitive people made war, the tribe which won the battle would take the survivors from the defeated tribe as slaves. Slavery continued in most civilizations until the 1700’s when it was gradually abolished in the European countries... but not in their colonies. This brings us back to 1619, and the arrival of the first African slaves to the English colony at Jamestown, what is now Virginia in the US. This was the beginning of a massive slave trading business in which over 11 million people were captured in West Africa, and shipped across the Atlantic to begin a lifetime of oppression and vile treatment. This is how black people entered the New World.
Contrast that with the way that white settlers came to the North American colonies. They came not as slaves, but as seekers of freedom and opportunity in a new land. Europe in the 17thand 18th centuries was an unhappy place for most people as the kings and aristocracy had all of the wealth and power. The vast majority of the population lived in abject poverty with no rights and little chance for advancement. Across the ocean they envisioned a land of opportunity where they could make a real life for themselves and their children. They came of their own free will to reach this beacon of freedom. That is the exact opposite of the experience of blacks, who were dragged to the colonies in chains to be sold as chattel with no rights and no hope.
The slave trade ended in 1807, but slavery continued in the southern US states. In 1861 eleven of those states declared that they were seceding from the US to preserve their right to have slaves. This caused a violent Civil War that was finally won by the northern states, and slavery was officially abolished in 1865. However the southern states immediately found a way to continue the oppression of their former slaves. They passed what became known as “Jim Crow laws” that took away all rights from black people and controlled every aspect of their lives. It was slavery under another name, and it lasted for 100 more years.
That was the world that MLK was born into - an unjust society created by over 300 years of slavery and violent oppression.
After graduating from university, MLK went on to succeed his father as the leader of a famous black church in Atlanta, Georgia. He also followed his father’s footsteps as a civil rights leader - and took it to another level. In 1955, at the age of 26, King became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He worked tirelessly to organize protests and peaceful marches throughout the south, bringing attention to the evils of segregation and black people’s lack of voting rights. These demonstrations were ‘peaceful’ only on the side of the nonviolent blacks, as in most cases the protesters were cruelly beaten by the police. Pressure for change was building as the entire country watched these peaceful people being beaten and abused for the ‘crime’ of asking for their legal rights.
“I Have a Dream” showed us the road to racial justice,
and how far we still have to go.
The demonstrations grew larger and larger each year, and finally reached a dramatic climax with the “March on Washington for Freedom” in 1963. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over America came to the biggest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.’s history. They came to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks in the southern US, and to demand new Federal laws to protect their rights. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial... looking out over this massive expectant crowd... Martin Luther King put aside his prepared speech and shared his 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 colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
“I Have a Dream” is regarded as one of the most important speeches in American history. It was instrumental in making civil rights for blacks an urgent priority, and spurred landmark legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited all forms of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. It also specifically made segregation illegal. This was followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which struck down all of the Jim Crow laws that had kept blacks from voting throughout the south. The enforcement of these laws has been crucial in the quest for racial justice.
In 1964 MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “lifetime of fighting for racial equality through nonviolent resistance”. In later years he expanded his focus to include opposition to the war in Vietnam and an end to poverty. In 1968 he was assassinated while planning another huge rally in Washington. The memory of his achievements and sacrifice live on in the hundreds of schools and streets that have been named in his honour. In 1986 Martin Luther King Day was declared a national holiday in the US. MLK’s life and legacy helped the US to make great strides in racial freedom, but there is still a long way to go.
The millions of people who marched in response to the murder of George Floyd by the police in 2020, was a heart-warming affirmation of how the progress toward justice continues. In the words of an old Sam Cooke song: “It’s been a long time coming, but change is gonna come.”