Martin Luther King still stands for courage and justice

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In 1983, to honor the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress established the third Monday in January as a federal holiday to begin in 1986. This year, it will be observed on Jan. 19.

This tribute was created so homage could be paid to a great American who led peaceful demonstrations for equal rights. Who was this man whose memory lingers to this day, and why was a federal holiday established in his honor?

The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. A man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures — and that is the basis of all human morality. — John F. Kennedy

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga., and died on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. He was 39. His words and actions motivated Americans to strive toward racial and social justice.

If I can in any way contribute to the diversity or improvement of the country in which I live, I shall leave it when I am summoned out of it with the secret satisfaction of thinking that I have not lived in vain. — Joseph Addison

A black seamstress named Rosa Parks became the catalyst that pushed King into national prominence. Riding on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, she refused to give up her seat to boarding whites and move to the back of the bus. “There was no plan at all,” she said afterward. “My feet hurt.”

The only gift is a portion of thyself. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

But her actions led to her arrest. King organized a bus boycott to protest the arrest and segregation ordinance. The boycott, which lasted 382 days, signified the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which would grow into a national phenomenon involving millions of Americans, both black and white.

When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do. Think up something appropriate and do it. — Edgar Watson Howe

During the Montgomery boycott, King’s life was threatened and his house was bombed, even though the guiding principle behind all of King’s words and actions was non−violence. It was as if his peaceful but potent action for brotherhood carried with it the inevitability of responses by bombs and bullets, given the sickness of racial hatred and injustice.

Courage is rightly esteemed the first human quality ... because it is the quality which guarantees all others. — Winston Churchill

It was a harbinger of his death in Memphis when, 13 years later, he was shot while in the city to lead non−violent demonstrations for striking sanitation workers.

O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed; courage to change what should be changed; and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. — Reinhold Niebuhr

King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 following the boycott. The purpose of the conference was to educate blacks in the methods of non−violence to end segregation, but the SCLC became an inspiring force for whites who shared King’s dreams of a just society.

One man with courage makes a majority. — Andrew Jackson

In 1963, King expressed those dreams in his “I Have a Dream” speech before over 200,000 people in the famous march on Washington, D.C. The demonstration and King’s speech prompted action by Congress, which in July 1964 passed the Civil Rights bill, introduced the previous year by President John F. Kennedy.

I expect to pass through this world but once; any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. — Stephen Grellet

In 1964, King became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize.

He continued his work organizing and uniting Americans in the fight against injustice. It ended when his life was snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet.

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 four hundred 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. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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