Berger’s Burg: Martin Luther King was a ‘drum major for justice’

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“Do your work so well that no one could do it better. Do it so well that all the hosts of Heaven and Earth will have to say, ‘Here lived a man who did his job as if God Almighty called him at this particular time in history to do it.’” -Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1983, in honor of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., Congress established the third Monday in January as a federal holiday to begin in 1986. This tribute was created so homage could be paid to a great American who led peaceful demonstrations for equal rights.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

On Jan. 15 we celebrate the 75th year of his birth (to be observed on Jan. 20). The memory of this charismatic and articulate spokesman still lingers. King was the most important public figure to emerge from the Deep South in the 20th century. By helping to destroy segregation in his home territory, he redefined America’s approach to human rights.

“We must either learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Clergyman, civil rights leader and humanitarian, King was born peacefully in 1929 but died violently in 1968. He had a brilliant, influential and all-too-short life. His campaigns against injustices and his nonviolent battles against seemingly overwhelming odds sparked the civil rights struggle during the mid-20th century.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

King possessed a very disciplined and dedicated personality. This helped him meet, complete and overcome seemingly impossible tasks necessary to achieve the objectives he was undertaking. While a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he waded through an entire Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, word by word and page by page, memorizing the definition of every entry.

Alphabetically and systematically, King succeeded in completing this task. When asked why he even attempted such a tedious and difficult undertaking, King simply replied that he was preparing himself to become a better speaker and a better writer and, above all, to gain the knowledge that the impossible is possible with a little perseverance and a lot of faith.

It was this unshakable fortitude that shaped King’s accomplishments. As an aspiring writer, I once opened my Webster’s Abridged Dictionary and tried memorizing every word in succession. I wearily dropped out after reaching the word “agaric.” I have since forgotten its definition.

“When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied.”

King graduated from Morehouse College at the age of 19. Three years later he earned his bachelor of divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminar and in 1955 was awarded his doctorate at Boston University.

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

He had been deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, the late, renowned pacifist leader of India. Gandhi taught nonviolent and peaceful means to protest evil, and King borrowed and transformed this grand tradition of protest. It was not long before he was in the forefront of demonstrations challenging established traditions and customs that violated human rights. He became involved with injustices in employment, voting procedure, housing, civil rights and individual freedoms.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

King’s most famous demonstration was his march against segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Ala. Blacks were required to ride in the rear of buses. After a year of very difficult times, blacks and whites were finally able to ride Montgomery buses on an unsegregated basis for the first time. The challenges of Montgomery taught black Americans the power of organization and the dignity of nonviolence.

“We must speed up the coming of the inevitable — Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed.”

King was also instrumental in organizing voter registration for blacks in Selma, Ala. For such nonviolent activities as these, he was thrown into jail more than 30 times and was subjected to beatings and verbal abuse. Nevertheless, he held no bitterness toward his tormentors.

“Let no man drag you so low as to hate.”

King always believed in the power of love, good will and nonviolence. He had faith in democracy and in 1964, at the age of 35, he was the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights work.

“I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I dream of the time when the evils of prejudice and segregation will vanish.”

In July 1964, one year after this “I Have A Dream” speech, Congress passed a sweeping Civil Rights Bill.

“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land (together).”

During King’s remarkable career, togetherness and love for one another was his theme. On April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended his life in Memphis, Tenn. at the age of 39. He was shot while in that city to lead a nonviolent demonstration of striking sanitation workers.

“When I go, don’t bother to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize, for that doesn’t matter. Don’t bother to say I have three or 400 other awards, for they don’t matter, either. Just say I tried to love somebody; say I tried to feed the hungry, I tried to love and serve humanity. Just say I was a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace who tried to make of this old world a new world.”

We lost an articulate and eloquent spokesman for justice when we lost Martin Luther King.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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