On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am reminded of our family’s connection to Dr. King. My father’s uncle ran a small print shop in downtown Jackson during the 1960s. His shop printed copies of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” prior to it ever being published in newsprint.
It was a favor my great-uncle did for a local black minister, moonlighting as the print shop’s janitor. “They wanted somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 copies maybe.” My great uncle remembered it being “a big job.” He got paid for the printing, of course. Altruism does not run in our family.
Besides, this was the same great-uncle who heard from his print shop workers that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, and reportedly said, “Good. I hope it killed him.”
Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president and a war hero, had called for a civil rights bill. He also called for arms reductions, strengthening the U.N., and talks with our primary nemesis, the U.S.S.R. His assassination was welcomed and cheered by many of his own countrymen, even those living outside of Jackson, Mississippi.
Years later while sweating it out running an old-style printing press during the summer months of college, I asked my great-uncle if he actually did wish Kennedy dead. Older and maybe a little wiser, he admitted saying so and regretting it. “There were a lot of angry people then. I was one of them.”
Looking back, he believed the workers who told him of the Kennedy assassination that day were fearful. “It’s doubtful any of them actually voted for Kennedy,” he said, “but I think they were fearful of what the president’s death would mean to America.”
As it turns out, it meant a great deal.
The ’60s were not just about free love and great music. Those were likely just curious byproducts of the decade’s turmoil: a decade which began with the optimism of a young President Kennedy and ended with a nation mired in Nixonian Paranoia. And as the song goes, “paranoia strikes deep.”
Before the ’60s were over there would be more assassinations, two of which would take the lives of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King. Can you imagine how different our country would be today if either or both had lived past 1990?
The high water mark of the nation’s greatest social movement occurred not when LBJ signed the civil rights legislation in the White House, but on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Dr. King was taken from us.
Dr. King had gone beyond civil rights to fight against poverty and the increased militarization of America. King was making the establishment ever more nervous and groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam ever more impatient.
He understood the forces that led to black militancy, but King believed any movement rooted in violence, vengeance and fear would ultimately fail. Retaliating against suffering only creates more suffering, he believed, and the truly courageous never choose violence.
In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King wrote:
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This way of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“Non-violence will always be the most revolutionary form of protest and the greatest tool in the fight for justice. Though the journey may be long, painful and fraught with tears, the Universe is on the side of justice and love is greater than hate.”
King knew he wasn’t a perfect man. The FBI knew it too and used the information they had in an attempt to blackmail King, encouraging him to commit suicide prior to his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. But King would not live in fear of his own failures. He continued to work for the poor and the marginalized of our nation. He worked for the future of our nation and all God’s children.
» David Dallas is a political writer. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.
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