Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & President John F. Kennedy

17/01/2011 at 09:20 Leave a comment


Today we celebrate, remember and mark the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His work in non-violence, equality and justice got us where we are today. His voice and actions called for action and change. And while his work changed most American communities and businesses during the 1960’s and beyond, we still have a long way to go.

I am going to start with history. I am shocked when I meet some from generations behind me who don’t know who Dr. King is. Or some have heard of his name and vaguely what he did. How is this possible? We live in a mostly integrated, somewhat equal nation because of his work. We have LAWS because of his words and deeds. We cannot take his work, life and those who continue it for granted.

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy became the youngest and first Catholic elected President of the United States (by the slimmest popular vote ever). I remember reading about this in history books and not understanding why that was a big deal – the Catholic thing, not the vote thing. I learned why that was a shift for America, but still didn’t get it as a Jew living in Cleveland.

Both of these men changed the course of our country and in many ways impacted our international diplomacy. While the third Monday in January may be a “holiday” for some, I think it is much more.

Kennedy and King were not perfect in their work separately or together, but they did a lot of the heavy lifting that that gave us*:

  • The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for 385 days, and the situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.
  • In 1957, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform.
  • King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Which was proposed by President Kennedy during this turbulent time in America.
  • The Birmingham campaign was a strategic effort by the SCLC to promote civil rights for African Americans. Based on actions in Birmingham, Alabama, its goal was to end the city’s segregated civil and discriminatory economic policies. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said, “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”. During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs to control protesters, including children. By the end of the campaign, King’s reputation improved immensely, Connor lost his job, the “Jim Crow” signs in Birmingham came down, and public places became more open to blacks.
  • King and the SCLC joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, in December 1964, where SNCC had been working on voter registration for several months. A sweeping injunction issued by a local judge barred any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of SNCC, SCLC, or DCVL, or with the involvement of 41 named civil rights leaders. This injunction temporarily halted civil rights activity until King defied it by speaking at Brown Chapel on January 2nd 1965.
  • King was among the leaders of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. King is perhaps most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than a quarter million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington’s history.
  • Khrushchev began building nuclear missile bases in Cuba. President Kennedy ordered a “quarantine” of Cuba in response. He warned that any attack from Cuba would be seen as an act of war by the USSR. This stand off led to the dismantling of the missile silos in exchange for promises that the US would not invade Cuba. Kennedy also agreed to a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 with Britain and the USSR.
  • As President, Kennedy founded the Peace Corps and created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity which grew to the U.S.
    Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

That’s what I remember on the Martin Luther King holiday. I think, “What if Reverend King and President Kennedy never used their voice to lead?” Where would our country, education, government and people be today? I know, I know – there is more work to do and I would like to think I am a part of the solution, not the problem. But if these statesmen had not stood up for what was right, we would be living in a very different America.

Whatever your Martin Luther King holiday may be, take a moment to reflect on the freedom you, your family, neighbors and community have. If there is injustice in your community, think about Reverend King and President Kennedy and ask yourself, “What would they do?”. Think about those in the military who are serving to protect the freedoms King and Kennedy espoused. Take a moment and give thanks, better yet, take action. Think about how you can make a difference or serve others.

*Thanks to Wikipedia.

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