Remembering the Civil Rights Movement

I grew up in the 1960’s and remember the tumultuous times in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made his historic mark on American society. Dr. King was always one of my heroes. So I was delighted a few years ago when I was asked to deliver an address about his legacy.

I wasn’t ready, however, for the range and depth of emotions evoked during my research. Reading old news articles and viewing black and white photos of the problem of racial discrimination and the struggle against it made me realize how much I had forgotten or repressed about my country’s awful legacy of slavery, bigotry, and government-sanctioned segregation.

Time had dulled my memory of heart-wrenching and conscience-burning images of lynchings, murdered civil rights workers, church bombings, cross burnings, screaming mobs, white-hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan, police attacking demonstrators with dogs and, of course, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s been over 50 years since Governor George Wallace of Alabama declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” And though the time when there were neighborhoods where African Americans were barred, hotels where they couldn’t stay, restaurants where they couldn’t eat, and drinking fountains they couldn’t use is becoming a distant memory, the fact that this level of social injustice existed at all should both shame and caution us.

The book and movie The Help is an eloquent and moving reminder of the pervasiveness of prejudice and its withering effect on the human spirit.

I hope parents and teachers will use the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday as an impetus to paint a vivid picture for children that conveys not just the facts, but the feelings of outrage and injustice that fueled Dr. King’s courageous leadership, and motivated tens of thousands of black and white people to follow him on marches, boycotts, and sit-ins.

Without this context, one cannot truly appreciate the importance of Dr. King’s contributions to American life and the distance we’ve come because of him.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


Comments 6

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  1. Pingback: MEMO: I Wish You a Meaningful Martin Luther King Day

  2. The movie, Selma, is one of those movies that, I believe, will touch the hearts of millions. There is still much to do. Discrimination is still alive and well!

  3. The more we remember Dr. Martin Luther King and the courage he had to face down governors and mayors who wanted to keep black people in their place, the most likely America is to achieve greatness in the future. If we forget what Dr. King fought for we might fall into the same path again. Some politicians are working to divide us, in particular the so-called illegal aliens. There is nothing illegal about these people and they are not aliens, they are undocumented residents of our various states who have arrived here to perform work that American citizens will not do for the low wages offered. The plight of the undocumented residents is not far from how black Americans were treated in the 1960’s. In 1965 I visited my father’s hometown for a family vacation. I was only 18 years old. My father’s hometown was in Kentucky, a southern state with Jim Crow laws. Coming from California where discrimination was not so blatant, I was surprised and afraid of what might happen to me if I did not obey the unwritten rules of Jim Crow. You must show proper deference to your betters, that is to white people. We have come a long way . . . we have not come as far as is necessary for America to achieve full dignity for all residents and citizens. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King whether we are black or otherwise. His work has made all of us better. Dr. King is not a black hero, he is an American hero.

  4. I too grew up during the Civil Rights years and I can still what I was taught to say about blacks by parents and family who, in that day, would have been considered enlightened and progressive for the South. But even then, as a young white, I truly had no clue what blacks of my generation endured. One book that did make an impression on me however and helped open my eyes was “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin, a white author who died his skin black and toured through the Deep South during the late 50’s – early 60’s. Even then, although it gave me a better intellectual understanding, it could never give one a full emotional understanding of what is was like to black then in the Deep South. In a similar manner, I think we have a similar situation even today where, when it comes to interactions with law enforcement officers, the experiences of young blacks and young whites can be very different in certain areas of the country and, again, it is something that must be experienced to be fully understood.

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