by Kisten Thompson
We commemorate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a Federal Holiday on the third Monday of each January. We have done this as a nation since 1986. We remember Dr. King as a civil rights leader in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a committed proponent of non-violence as means of protest and activism for systemic change, and as a remarkable preacher, prophet and pacifist. Dr. King’s actual birthdate is January 15 and he would have been 94 years old today had his life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullet April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.
Dr. King was quite young when he sprang to national prominence in 1955. He was the associate pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and because he had just been elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had called for the boycotting of city public bus transportation until certain rights had been acknowledged and given, he was called upon to be the spokesperson for the boycott.
On December 5, 1955 he gave a speech outlining the reasons for the boycott and calling upon the words of the biblical prophet, Amos: “We are here this evening for serious business. We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens, and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its means. We are here because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth. But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. . . .
My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and firm determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong, we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this Nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."
With these words and with the actions of the determined and peaceful Black residents of Montgomery, change began to happen. It was not without violence, hardship and suffering. But after 381 days, the segregated bus practices had been outlawed and a new day dawned. But it was only the beginning of a long and hard journey.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember the struggles, barriers and obstacles that were faced in every day life by African Americans in this country. And we continue to look to Dr. King’s legacy and the contributions of so many named and unnamed participants in the fight for justice, equality and inclusion, giving thanks for their dedication, and vowing to continue to uphold these values for all, to call out oppression when we see it and advocate for change where it is needed.