By Sherelle Harris
NORWALK, Conn. – When I visit my mom, my only living parent, I often discuss my disappointment in what my generation is doing for the next. When I am “home” I am surrounded by Black lawyers, judges, nurses, teachers, and university professors, those who did their parts for my generation. Many are retired. Some are still going strong. All, a generation or three from sharecropping, used education to gain access to a higher level of life and have remained humble as can be. They tutor school children, mentor the newbies in their respective fields, volunteer at shelters, deliver meals to the shut-in, etc. They understand unselfishness. They demonstrate community.
During my last visit home, between talking to living history, preparing for the Baptist and the AME ministers who are extended family members, I helped my mom prepare for a speech for their city-wide Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. We read chapters of Dr. King’s autobiography aloud together. We exchanged thoughts and, without writing a word, she practically formed her speech on the spot.
Here are some excerpts:
Plan for Education
During Dr. King’s senior year of high school, at age 15, he entered an oratorical contest. The subject was “The Negro and the U.S. Constitution.” Dr. King used the experiences of Marian Anderson, an opera singer, to bring awareness to the contradictions between the nation’s biblical faith and constitutional values and the continuing problem of racial discrimination.
From September of 1944 to June of 1948, he went to Morehouse College, where he received a BA in sociology. He was ordained as a Baptist Minister his senior year, at age 19.
From September of 1948 to May of 1952, he went to Crozer Theological Seminary and earned a BA in divinity.
Then, from September of 1951 to June of 1955, he went to Boston University and earned a doctorate of philosophy in systematic theology.
Be Open to God’s Placements
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. invited Dr. King to give a trial sermon in consideration for the pastorate of that church. The subject of that sermon was “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life: Self, Others and God.”
He became pastor of Dexter Avenue Church on Oct. 31, 1954. Dr. King was in Montgomery for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955 – 1956, following Rosa Park’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Oh, say can you see the providential course working in his life?
Be Specific About Goal and Strategy
I remember asking my mother if she thought the mission of civic organizations had morphed into fitting into higher society rather than the mission for which they were founded. I asked if she thought some of today’s vanguards hold these organizations hostage by making them clubs for cliques that enable them to be seen or help only their own. I asked if she thought some of the vanguards use their positions as an unspoken bargaining tool to get what they want personally/politically in exchange for calming the roaring crowd and making relevant issues go away, or as an unspoken threat of rallying the troops if they don’t get what they want personally/professionally. I needed to reason why the same issues keep getting tossed around in particular cities with a lot of bloviating and little to no change!
Her bottom-line was that leaders of her generation had specific wants and specific tactics. She used the Albany, Ala. Movement of 1961 to illustrate the organizational mistake of not attacking specific issues. Dr. King’s tactic was non-violent non-compliance, passive resistance and Christian love. It didn’t change, not even in the face of police brutality, water hoses, dog attacks and bombings. Imagine the strength of character that took!
When the younger generation tired of non-violence (see the DVD “The Black Power Mix Tape” shot by a group of Swedish journalists). Dr. King understood their reasoning, but he reasoned with them to understand his strategy and the fate that might accompany theirs.
Though the same fate befell the both militant and the nonviolent who wanted better conditions for Black people, below please find specific issues that were challenged under Dr. King’s leadership:
• Sit in movements all over the south were a demand for respect by students.
• Albany, Ala. Movement – Albany was a picture of worse discrimination. Even though their demands were not met (because of the nonspecific requests), the Blacks straightened their backs. As the saying goes, “No one can ride your back unless it’s bent.”
• Birmingham Campaign – high school and college students were attacked by fire hoses and dogs. A thousand children were arrested and then expelled or suspended by the Board of Education. It took the court system to reverse that decision.
• President John F. Kennedy announced his proposed new Civil Rights Bill.
• Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.
• Dr. King leads 125,000 people on a Freedom Walk in Detroit.
• Four Black girls were killed in Sunday School by the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
• President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
• St. Augustine, Fla. Movement which came about after the Ku Klux Klan beating of four Blacks.
• The Civil Rights Act was passed under President Lyndon Johnson as a follow-through on what President Kennedy had begun.
• Three civil rights workers went missing after their arrest in Philadelphia, Miss.
• The Mississippi Challenge resulted in The National Democratic Party pledging never to seat a racially segregated delegation again after The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party took issue with the legitimacy of the white-only U.S. Democratic Party and challenged the National Democratic Party convention to seat their delegates.
• The Selma, Ala. march for the right to vote
• Dr. King is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
• The Voting Rights Act was passed.
• The Watts (Calif.) violence resulted in 30 deaths.
• The Chicago Open Housing Bill began and was later passed.
• The inception of the Poor People’s Campaign focused on jobs and freedom for the poor of all races.
• Dr. King announces that the Poor People’s Campaign will result in a March on Washington for a $12 billion Economic Bill of Rights guaranteeing employment to the able-bodied, incomes to those unable to work, and an end to housing discrimination.
• Dr. King marches in support of sanitation workers on strike in Memphis,Tenn.
• Dr. King delivered the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
• Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, at age 39.
Don’t let his death be in vain. Take advantage of the rights he died for us to have. As much as we have to celebrate, we must also ask ourselves has the dream been totally accomplished? Let us insert ourselves as dream keepers. We have just elected our first Black president and that is very good, but what about the education divide that could keep other Black children from reaching that status? On the flip-side of that, what about the black-on-black crime? What about the disharmonious, nihilistic way we are represented on radio and television? Who is policing the Dadaism? From where came the disrespect some of our youth have for elders and educators?
What are some of the things that bother you? What are you doing to make them better? Some of Dr. King’s dream is unfulfilled and this is a fact of life. Some are the results of choices we have made and some are beyond our control.
Those who helped to right the world for my generation are aging now and deserve to know that their efforts en masse were not in vain. I would love to make them and this generation proud. One of my specific dreams is that no child enter middle school without proper reading skills; that if children have not reached the age-appropriate reading level by third grade, they are tested for a learning disability and work with a reading specialist who gets results if there isn’t a disability or be referred to the appropriate specialist if there is a one. Our clergy, once significant leaders in our community, know that Moses wanted to enter the promised land, but could not. Yet he had a dream keeper, Joshua. David wanted to build the temple, but could not. Yet he had a dream keeper, Solomon. Dr. King wanted to end discrimination but he couldn’t. He left dream keepers, namely you and me.