Susan Vaughan here on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Given the continuing racial and ethnic divides in the United States, one wonders what the Reverend Dr. King would think of the progress or lack thereof of civil rights. The holiday celebrates the life and legacy of this man who brought hope and change to America. To quote the King Center, “We commemorate as well the timeless values he taught us through his example—the values of courage, truth, justice, compassion, dignity, humility and service that so radiantly defined Dr. King’s character and empowered his leadership.
On this holiday we commemorate the universal, unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence that empowered his revolutionary spirit.” King’s nonviolent campaigns and eloquent and impassioned speeches led to changes in many laws and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, but his achievements changed the nation.
He is the leader most often mentioned in connection with the advancement of civil rights, but he was one of many. Who were these “others” and “activists?” Most people know about Rosa Parks, who, on a day in 1955, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white rider, thereby defying a southern custom that required blacks to give seats toward the front of buses to whites. When she was jailed, a black community boycott of the city’s buses began and lasted a year.
But who knows the names of the four African American college freshmen who, in 1960, sat down at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but were refused.
When asked to leave, they remained seated. Think about this in the context of the segregated South in the 1960’s. These were college freshmen, mere boys, who could’ve been beaten or shot or lynched. How brave they were!
The young men that first day were Ezell A. Blair, Jr, (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond. Blair/Khazan went on to graduate while involved in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He later moved to Massachusetts, where today he works with developmentally disabled people. Franklin McCain graduated and worked as a chemist and continued to be an oral historian of the civil rights movement. He died in Greensboro in 2014. Joseph McNeil earned his degree in engineering physics and joined the U.S. Air Force. While serving, he continued to volunteer in organizations that promoted civil rights. After active duty, he retired from the Air Force Reserves with the rank of Major General. David L. Richmond left college without finishing a degree. He worked as a counselor-coordinator for the CETA program in Greensboro and drifted from job to job. He died in 1990.
On days following the Greensboro Four’s lunch counter sit-in, other students joined, and by week’s end, 3000 students were picketing in downtown Greensboro. This passive resistance and peaceful protest began a wave of student sit-ins designed to end segregation at southern lunch counters. These protests spread rapidly throughout the South and led to the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This student-led group was more aggressive in its use of nonviolent direct action tactics than King’s SCLC.
A more prominent civil rights leader then was John Lewis, now Congressman Lewis. He was born in Alabama in 1940 and grew up in an era of segregation. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961 and helped plan the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was at this event where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, its passage law did not automatically make it easy for African Americans to vote in the South. To bring attention to this struggle, in 1965, led by Dr. King, Lewis and others organized marches from Selma fifty-five miles to Alabama’s state capital, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, you read that correctly. I believe that’s Lewis on the left in the white vestment. King and his wife are center right.
On Sunday, March 7, after crossing the bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten severely, suffering a fractured skull. The violent attacks were filmed and broadcast, and the powerful images of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” sped up the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act.
John Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. March, his memoir of the civil rights movement (with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell), written as a trilogy of graphic novels, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
I’m a white girl who at the time was aware of the civil rights movement but was focused on my studies. I’m ashamed to admit that I did little in support. The efforts and sacrifices of many, many anonymous and famous people led to improvements in civil rights, and many of those same people continue the fight. But if you look around you or read online or print articles, you know we still have a long way to go. Until we as a nation and as a people confront the shameful legacy of slavery and the centuries of its aftermath, we won’t leave behind the racism and ethnic suspicions that weigh us down. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”