Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movement, but millions of everyday folks had to follow
And other generations of unnamed and unsung people bore the burden before him
Today we honor Martin Luther King Jr.
Born on this date in 1929, Martin was a towering figure. There is no way to tell America’s story without stopping to read the chapters the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner helped write. Before Martin was assassinated in 1968, the modern civil rights moment he led waved the American flag in a most majestic way.
With his marches and protests, and the eloquence of his words, he helped America take halting steps toward becoming the nation promised in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We could talk about Martin all day today and write about him all night tomorrow and still only scratch the surface of his significance to America and to the world.
But as we stop to honor Martin, let’s also remember all the unnamed and unsung people, the little people, who went before Martin. They bore the lash. They wore the chains. They ran away from bondage.
Later, others marched with Martin, a mighty wind at his back. They prayed with him and for him. They made small contributions at their houses of worship to further Martin’s cause, the cause of freedom.
They inked the protest placards. They stood against the blasts of the water hoses, their spirits unbowed. They endured the dog bites and the blows of the clubs, the assaults upon their humanity. They went to jail.
And when the night grew darkest, they sang triumphant songs, illuminating a brighter future:
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Gonna build a brand new world …”
Martin and the little people saw that brand new world coming. And because of their strength, courage and determination, more and more of us live in that world. It’s a world that no longer spins upon an axis of white supremacy, no matter how many wish that it still did.
The new world scares some people, scares them so much that they seek to retreat into a mythical past, a time when they imagine that America was greater just because the number of different kinds of people who had to be respected as citizens and as human beings was smaller, by law and by tradition.
Laws and traditions come and go.
But the moral truths endure, and the giants who championed them live on in the spirit of a changing nation. On his birthday, let’s remember that Martin lives in the lives of every American who is willing to celebrate the here and now while fighting for a better tomorrow. On Monday, let’s remember one of the giants of American history. But let’s honor the little people, unnamed yet unbowed, unknown yet undefeated.
This is their day too.