As we honor the memory and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, it is important to recall the movement as well as the man. The most eloquent and impassioned voice of the civil rights struggle, Dr. King came to symbolize a movement that grew out of many seemingly small moral acts, by thousands of people in disparate localities. And the brave souls who participated in those acts didn’t start by asking what was considered politically possible, or what response they might reasonably expect from the Congress.
Instead, they knew that they had to identify grievous wrongs that needed righting, and make those wrongs clear to the country through the courage and conviction of their simple acts. Many of these acts never made headlines, but their sheer number and continuity helped create the conditions where some of those acts grew into seminal moments that made the movement grow and gather momentum.
The simple act by Rosa Parks of refusing to give up her seat on a public bus sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
A wave of sit-ins to protest discrimination and segregation was sparked in 1960 by four African-American college students sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The massive March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. King delivered his iconic I Have A Dream speech, was organized by many tens of thousands of people through scores of different groups and organizations. And, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reminds us today:
It has been easy for people to forget in the decades since we lost the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that he was a passionate fighter for economic justice as well as civil rights. The two goals were as closely linked as the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water.
The historic gathering in 1963 at which Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The courageous voting rights drive in 1964 that was called Mississippi Freedom Summer saw the murders of three young civil rights organizers, exposed the brutality of freedom’s opponents, and clarified the need for national voting rights legislation.
The March from Selma to Montgomery that was viciously attacked on the “Bloody Sunday” of March 7, 1965, was rejoined two days later with Dr. King in the lead, in an historic struggle that continued through the month and captured the attention of the nation.
The movement Dr. King fostered, and in many ways symbolized, won landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation, overturned the institution of segregation in the South, and began to overcome the historic racial prejudice in America.
But Dr. King increasingly turned to fight the deeper wrongs of poverty, joblessness and economic inequality.
He was killed on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39, a day after arriving in Memphis to help support striking AFSCME sanitation workers.
Today I have no doubt that Dr. King, were he alive, would be outraged at the vast injustice that has been perpetrated against America’s working people of all colors, poor and middle class alike. More Americans have been unemployed in this country every month since March of last year than at any time in our history — even more than at the depth of the Depression in 1933. Not percents — people; now numbering 15 million officially.
This devastation of lives and human dignity is not an act of nature and did not need to happen. It is solely the result of the selfish greed and mismanagement of financial and economic policy by an insular and powerful elite. And this elite stands opposed at every turn to just and timely efforts to address the damage, restore jobs and right the vast economic imbalances we suffer.
At such a time as this, perhaps we should reflect on this aspect of Dr. King’s legacy and realize, as he did, that sometimes it takes a movement.