Dr King linked universal social struggles and inspired a generation of students
Martin Luther King Jr is the embodiment of patriotism and a symbol of what it means to stand up for what you believe in even when the odds are against you. In today’s media, patriotism is often equated with blind fealty to the nation. However, King was an example of what this author believes is true patriotism, having the strength to hold your country accountable and demand it to be better and be true to its ideals. As we remember his life and legacy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination it is important to remember this: King was a man who stood for justice and demanded that the United States live up to its ideals. The whitewashing of King’s legacy has made him seem tame to contemporary observers who would rather look to people such as Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. However, King’s actual influence and radicalism cannot be denied if we just look at historical events. The message of Martin Luther King Jr and the importance of his message is exemplified by his speeches to the students of Howard University in Washington, D.C. The impact of his message is evident in student actions that were inspired by his words. Just as King’s words should not be taken out of context from the content of the actual speeches he gave, they should be considered together with such actions.
Martin Luther King Jr visited the campus of Howard University several times. Each time he encouraged the students to fight for their rights while adhering to the message of non-violence. In 1964, King gave the annual Gandhi Memorial Lecture. The event featured King and several other luminaries including noted writer James Baldwin. It was Baldwin who set the tone for the event asking three pointed questions for discussion. He stated, “How much provocation can a non-violent fighter take before he breaks into violence? Or if he can hold himself in check during the campaign is he more prone to become violent afterwards… how long can we not fight back?”
King’s speech was a response to this query. He said, “Non-violence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice.” He encouraged the young people to rise above the hatred of white supremacists who sought to deny them equal citizenship. “One must rise to the heights of being able to accept blows without retaliating.” He went on to explain what this means, not as a passive acceptance, but as a mode of survival without internalising toxic emotions such as hatred: “Hate is dangerous. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated… Non-violence means that you refuse to engage in external physical violence, and… in internal violence of (the) spirit.”
Protecting one’s spirit meant practicing love. “There are three kinds of love. The love I speak of… is a love of understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” This was the message from King to the young people of Howard University. It was speeches like this and the call of non-violence that inspired the afore-mentioned Stokely Carmichael nee Kwame Ture to coin the term “Black Power” while a student at Howard. Carmichael, who graduated from Howard in 1964, would go on to join and become a leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
The breadth of King’s message was on full display when he spoke again at the University’s Charter Day Celebration on 2nd March 1965. In his speech he called on the students to rise up and fight to make a better world. He called on them to end “the world’s three towering evils – racial injustice, poverty and war.” He called on the students to not give up even when all seemed lost. He said, “we must keep moving”. That is what we should remember about King and his message. It was not a narrow message focused completely on making the better simply for African Americans. He wanted to make a better world for everyone. That was the essence of his lauded “I Have a Dream” speech. It was also the message he carried to every protest and battle of the civil rights movement.
The universality of his message spoke to young people, and inspired them to be active and stand up to injustice. King was not simply a man fighting for the civil rights of his people – he fought to make the world better for everyone. This led him to join efforts to end the Vietnam War. His Poor People’s Campaign linked the struggle of African Americans to the struggle of poor whites and to others battling to survive under the crushing weight of poverty. This message of the universal struggle and an effort to bring various groups together made King an enemy in the eyes of the J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. However, to millions around the country, this message was an inspiration indicating that change could come.
This was no more clear than on the campus of Howard University. Inspired by King and others, the students held numerous protests across the campus. Students protested the Vietnam War and America’s involvement. To get their message across they interrupted Charter Day exercises and burned two figures in effigy outside of Douglas Hall – the programme’s speaker, General Lewis Blaine Hershey, who was the director of the Selective Service System, and James Nabrit, then the Howard President. They even took over the University’s Administration or “A” Building to demand change at the university in March of 1967.
King’s legendary oratory inspired thousands. It is why Joann Gibson Robinson and the Women of the Montgomery Improvement Association called him to Montgomery, Alabama, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott to be the face of their movement. It is also why he received international praise including the Nobel Peace Prize. A symbol of King’s international recognition remains on the campus of Howard University. A bust of Mahatma Gandhi presented to King by the Indian Embassy sits on display in the Historic Founders Library. This bust, along with a bust of King himself, stands as a reminder to students of the power of non-violent, peaceful protest. It is a message that remains relevant today as young people march for change after recent US school shootings and as Black Lives Matter (BLM) brings attention to the killing of unarmed black men.
It is interesting to see the parallels between BLM and the earlier movement led by King, both of which have had non-violence as a tenant. Like King’s movement, BLM is vilified in the press and by conservatives as the cause of the violence against them. According to those in power, the civil rights movement was built by outside agitators, and similarly, according to officials in Ferguson, BLM protests were cause by outside agitators. Paradoxically, they were each also told that silence will make their problems go away – that if they stop agitating then justice will eventually come. This preposterous notion haunted the civil rights movement and continues to dog the BLM movement today.
On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, we must remember King for his universal message of peace and non-violence. We must remember that this message was not “tame” but radical. It was radical in that it called people to fight for change but also maintain their morality. This was a tough battle in the face of vehement hatred and the frequent indignities faced by African Americans and other minorities. As King stated, “Hate is dangerous. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated.”
Image: Courtesy of the Howard University Archives
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