On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on a balcony near his Memphis motel room, just before he was to lead a protest march in support of striking sanitation workers, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. Using a rifle equipped with a sniper scope, the career criminal shot King from his bathroom window. The single bullet severed King''s spinal cord, ending a life that over the previous decade, had changed America and the world forever.
A federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King is now observed annually on the third Monday of January. Realizing that over 97% of the residents of Sevier County are white, while under 1% are black, many of us may feel less than connected to the occasion than, as Americans, we should be. That is because, in reality, as long as one American is oppressed, none are truly free.
Two years shy of my 50th birthday, I am still old enough to remember the “whites only” signs of my youth in New Orleans.
My grandfather used to take me to a walk-up café on Canal Street once a week for our favorite greasy burgers. Just beside the trailer was a water fountain with a “whites only” sign on the front. Beside the fountain was a spicket protruding a few inches from the ground with a piece of a cut off garden hose attached. There were no instructions, but everyone knew who the hose was for. Even as a small boy, something seemed terribly wrong with that picture.
Michael Luther King, Jr. was born at noon on Tuesday, January 15, 1929, at his family’s home in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the first son and second child of Reverend King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King. According to King Sr., Michael was an error made by his father that was mistakenly passed on to his son at birth. Although there is no evidence that either man legally changed their names to Martin, both men chose to continue to honor Martin Luther, the great 16th century Protestant reformer.
After attending segregated public schools in Georgia, young Martin graduated from high school at age fifteen. He received a BA degree in 1948 from Morehouse College that led to three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class and awarded a BD in 1951. After winning a fellowship while at Crozer, King enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence in 1953 and receiving his doctorate in 1955. While in Boston, he met and married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953.
Dr. King’s concept of “somebodiness” gave black and poor people a new sense of worth. Embracing Gandhi’s example of nonviolent resistance in December 1955, he led the first of many great Negro nonviolent demonstrations in the US. The Montgomery bus boycott, initiated by Rosa Parks lasted 382 days until the Supreme Court declared the laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional. During the boycott, King was arrested, beaten and his home was bombed. Still, the rightness of his argument prevailed. Later, at the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Nearly forty years after his death, his words, wisdom, actions, and his dream for a true brotherhood among Americans continue to resonate as a noble goal, yet to completely be achieved.
Henry Piarrot is a lodging manager in Sevier County, TN. Please send all story recommendations to email@example.com