I would argue that no person has done more to improve life in the modern Deep South than Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps someone else could argue for Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Depression-era New Deal, or further back, Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery. But I would argue for King, whose birthday is today. (He would turn 90, if he were still living.)
Despite the broad range of intelligent and skilled men and women who comprised the leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the South, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. whose calm charisma, earnest and expressive face, and wonderfully rolling cadences embodied the ideals of the movement for public consumption. From the early successes in the Montgomery Bus Boycott to his last stirring speech in Memphis, King provided the imagery, both visual and verbal, that were the impetus for many Americans to embrace a change for the South, because to apply to him those haunting negative stereotypes of African Americans was impossible. He may or may not have been a saint, but a man of character, intellect, and eloquence he clearly was.
Moreover, Martin Luther King, Jr. not only put his strength and effort into the struggle for the rights of African Americans in the South— he worked for the rights of all people. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
In this region that has long suffered from the pitfalls of dualistic ideas about society – black and white, men and women, locals and outsiders, us and them – King advocated for a greater comprehension of our common humanity and consequently of the truth in that old adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Despite the contention of traditionally minded white Southerners that conflated the improvement of black people’s lives with the diminution of their own, King’s words gave an eloquent expression to people in strife that the pursuit of fairness and justice is not a zero-sum game.
Though he stood outside of the process for their legislative passage, King’s work also laid the groundwork for two important pieces of legislation that have changed the Deep South: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal protections from these laws have enabled generations of people to have opportunities for education, jobs, and voting that could have been and once were denied. The long-term benefits can’t even be measured.
Yet, though Martin Luther King, Jr. made great strides, neither he nor the Civil Rights movement solved the problems, and we still do have some unfortunate dualistic, zero-sum ideas in the Deep South. We hear notions that protecting women from sexual assault and harassment somehow limits the rights of men. We hear concerns that same-sex marriage degrades the marriages of opposite-sex couples. We hear about fears that people immigrating to this country must, unlike “hard-working Americans,” have harmful goals and unproductive attitudes. All of these equate opportunities for The Other as a denial or degradation for everyone else. As a consequence, because he and his movement didn’t fully succeed, we still need what King gave to all of us: not only the words and ideas to combat injustice, but perhaps more importantly, the sense that prejudices truly can be overcome.
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