James Oliver Horton: Historical Perspective on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Roundup: Talking About History

James Oliver Horton, for Historynow.org (6-18-05):

[Mr. Horton is the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University.]

... The March on Washington at which King delivered his speech was the largest political demonstration in U.S. history that had occurred up to that point, an inspiring occasion. It was a day filled with lofty words from a range of speakers, from NAACP president Roy Wilkins and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to actor Charlton Heston representing a contingent of artists, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier. Heston read a speech prepared by the African American writer James Baldwin, and John Lewis then reflected the sentiment of the day with his declaration that, “We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now.” Yet no one’s words inspired and electrified the crowd, the entire nation, and much of the world, more than those of Martin Luther King.

As we think about that day and about King’s words when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is fitting that we recall the historical context for the formation of the modern civil rights leadership. It is especially important for those too young to remember the man and his times to understand that King was not the first great advocate of American civil rights, but one in a long line of those who took the nation’s promise of liberty and equality of opportunity seriously enough to force the nation to reflect on its shortcomings and to demand that it live out its dreams. King would not have been completely comfortable with a day set aside in his honor. He was a man of great public humility, who realized that he was not the totality of the modern civil rights struggle but that he only symbolized the work that others were doing and had done over generations. He also understood that he was both a part and a product of a long history of human rights struggles, a history that, even now, few Americans appreciate.

One story that has become part of civil rights lore vividly illustrates this lack of understanding. During the early 1960s, hundreds of college students participated in the “jail, no bail” campaign to pack Southern jails to overflowing, signaling that African Americans would not submit to racially discriminatory laws that denied them everything from a cup of coffee served on the basis of equality to the right to vote. The mother of one jailed protester attempted to post bond for her daughter’s release. The daughter, however, refused to accept bail, admonishing her mother that, “If your generation had done this, my generation would not have to.” Despite its dramatic appeal, the daughter’s accusation was based on an ignorance of history. King and many others in the movement understood that they were following in the footsteps of their ancestors, white and black, those who in every generation since before national independence had struggled for freedom. Among African Americans and their progressive white allies, the dream of the 1960s was older than the nation.

The original American dream, set out in Thomas Jefferson’s essay that became the Declaration of Independence, made no direct mention of racial equality or of equality of opportunity unrestricted by race, for Jefferson and few of the national founders considered such a condition practical. During the 1770s and for the preceding generations of colonial life in British North America, human slavery had defined much of American race relations. Moreover, nearly half of those who signed the Declaration that brought the nation into being were themselves slaveholders whose personal fortunes rested on the uncompensated labor of bound Africans. Herein was forged the great American contradiction -- a freedom-loving nation that tolerated human slavery. But for all its contradictions, the original American dream provided the foundation for a freedom struggle that began at the nation’s birth and continued beyond the life of Martin Luther King.

King’s call for America to make good on its commitment to human freedom and on the country’s belief in the existence of “inalienable” human rights given by God, rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, drew upon centuries of tradition. Even before the nation had secured its liberty from Great Britain, African slaves had made a similar demand on those American patriots seeking national independence for themselves. In 1773 and 1774, Massachusetts slaves confronted colonial authorities with the question of freedom for America’s slaves. "We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them," they said. Other New England slaves issued similar petitions, highlighting the parallels between their cause and America’s desire to become a "free and Christian country."...

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