Civil rights movement, as Dr. King knew, was work of thousands
OnMonday, as we again honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we must not forget the many others who also deserve to be remembered.
Don’t misunderstand me. Dr. King was a great man, a heroic warrior in the fight for civil rights whose eloquence and fearlessness were an essential part of the success of the movement. He belongs in any pantheon of great Americans.
But the civil rights movement was never about one man. It was about tens of thousands of ordinary Americans of every color and creed bravely defying racist regimes to fight for rights so basic that it should still make us cringe in shame to list them— the right to sit where you want to on a bus, the right to swim in your town’s pool, the right to drink from the same water fountain as a person of another color, the right to go to the same school as your neighbor, the right to vote.
It does not take a deep familiarity with the civil rights movement to realize that ordinary people were always at the heart of it.
The sit- in movement to bring about the end of segregation at stores and restaurants throughout the South was entirely the product of young men and women willing to risk a beating or worse in order to bring about change. The struggle for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama, which helped lead to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, did not depend on Dr. King alone. It also required thousands of ordinary people, including school children, willing to brave the police and fire hoses and attack dogs.
King’s presence certainly helped galvanize that local movement and ensured that there would be national press coverage, but he himself would have been the first to acknowledge that it was the work of many. And would we still remember King’s magnificent “I have a dream” speech if only 250 people had shown up for the March onWashington, rather than the estimated 250,000?
None of the great successes of the civil rights movement were the work of one person.
Dr. King’s very emergence as a civil rights leader reveals how the movement was based on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. He was a newcomer in Montgomery, Alabama, when the other ministers suggested that he lead the bus boycott. He was not selected because he had a reputation as an eloquent speaker or because they thought he would go on to be the great leader of the civil rights movement. He was chosen precisely because he was new and unknown.
As E. D. Nixon says in the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary, “The city fathers hadn’t had a chance to put their hands on him yet.”
Dr. King did make the ultimate sacrifice. He was assassinated while in Memphis marching on behalf of striking sanitation workers. Sadly, though, he was far from the only one to make that sacrifice.
Medgar Evers was shot and killed while directing NAACP operations in Mississippi. Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death when he was in Selma to take part in the march. Rev. George Lee was murdered for his efforts to register black voters in Mississippi.
The list is a long one, even if you do not include the African- Americans who were lynched, beaten, or shot in the segregated South simply because they posed some sort of threat to a racist system.
Even as we remember Dr. King, we must not forget our own power, our own ability to reshape society. It is easy to fall prey to the belief that we will have to wait for another great man or woman to come along to improve our world in a dramatic way.
When I talk to my students about what sort of difference they would like tomake in theworld around them, many seem to think that they cannot make any difference. But real change is never the work of a single heroic individual. Rather, it grows out of ordinary people banding together and doing extraordinary things.
So, when we remember Dr. King, let’s also celebrate the civil rights movement, which includes famous names such as King and Bob Moses and James Meredith and John Lewis and Julian Bond, but which also includes countless men and women whose names never made it into the history books. Even if we do not honor them with a federal holiday, we should remember that they also made history.
As Dr. King said near the end of his life, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve . . . You only need a heart full of grace.”
We can honor him by looking for that grace within ourselves.
Even as we remember Dr. King, we must not forget our own power, our own ability to reshape society.