Those two dispiriting realities make King’s achievements all the more remarkable, and the memorial to be dedicated in his honor — though its dedication is delayed by Hurricane Irene — all the more deserving.
Abominable racial injustice engulfing America, especially in the South, was deep and abiding. It shadowed King throughout his 13-year ministry, up to the moment of his death. The real story of the civil rights movement is, to use King’s words, its “strong, persistent and determined action” that led to victory over a resistance willing to go to any lengths to protect an unjust, hateful and morally wrong system of segregation.
Lest we forget, segregation’s supporters, and those who remained silent in the face of racial injustice, numbered in the millions. Many still live among us.
In a way, the King memorial serves as a reminder, albeit unintended, that despite the tremendous progress achieved on his watch, resistance to an integrated society is an ingrained part of U.S. history.
The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended human bondage. But racial injustice and humiliating treatment of blacks continued virtually unabated long after the Civil War.
As W.E.B. DuBois observed in his 1903 publication, “The Souls of Black Folk,” following the war: “Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime and its practical nullification as a duty.”
So, too, in our time and with my generation: Defiance and resistance to desegregation persisted for decades, and with the severity of a Stage IV cancer.
King is widely honored today. But at no point in his pilgrimage did the white power structures of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia or elsewhere in the South step forward to meet him with a declaration that integration was morally right. If a majority of white Southerners saw justice in the civil rights cause, they managed to keep it a secret.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, there were few, if any, white Southern demands for compliance. Instead, the response to the court came in the form of the Southern Manifesto, a document of defiance signed by practically every Southern member of the House and Senate, pledging to overturn the Brown decision.
Black children entering white schools weren’t met by welcoming principals and teachers but by jeering, angry mobs. Black bus riders, freed by court ruling to travel interstate without racial restrictions, were kicked and beaten.
The evil system of segregation that kept black children out of amusement parks, that forced their parents to drink from fountains marked “Colored,” that served Holy Communion to whites ahead of blacks, that separated movie- and concert-goers by race — that pernicious system was not attacked but was preserved for decades by majorities all across the South.
Change has come, but not voluntarily. Attempts to end slavery were greeted with massive, military resistance. So, too, did massive resistance stand in the way of desegregation. It took legal and nonviolent pressure courageously led by Dr. King, civil rights lawyers and foot soldiers in the movement, along with powers of the federal government, to put an end to segregation.
Who knows where the country would be today had the defiant and the resisters prevailed, not only in the 1860s, but also in the 1960s and beyond.
That is the context in which to see the historic ’63 march and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. That statue represents victory of the quest for equality and human dignity over racial injustice, its practitioners and the cautious and the cowardly who allowed that evil to triumph in America for so long.
I’m still saddened, and yes, irrevocably scarred by the hate that ended King’s life when he was only 39 years old. A life brutally taken simply because King, the son, grandson and great-grandson of preachers, felt compelled to carry forward the gospel of freedom.