My great-great grandparents, on both sides of my family, were born slaves. They were property to be sold and traded like livestock. Surprisingly, I have been able to trace the ancestry on my mother’s side all the way back to the 1830’s to a Julianne Bourgeios in Waveland, Mississippi. My great grandfather, John Henry Lewis was born just after the Civil War. I can find no records of who his parents are, nor of his wife, Fannie Mae Wright.
As slaves, my ancestors living in the deep South before the Civil War were subjected to cruelty and brutal conditions that we can now scarcely imagine. It seems my mother’s side of the family was fairly well treated... there was a strong French component to her blood line. Records were better kept for slaves who worked closer to their master’s families because house servants tended to be treated with something approaching kindness. I don’t believe the same could be said of my father’s grandparents. I believe they fit the more classic picture of generations of people bought and sold into slavery, with all the attendant horror of those times.
Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding, and imprisonment. Punishment was most often meted in response to disobedience or perceived infractions, but sometimes abuse was carried out simply to re-assert the dominance of the master or overseer over the slave. Treatment was usually harsher on large plantations, which were often managed by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders; in contrast with small slave-owning families, where the closer relationship between the owners and slaves sometimes resulted in a more humane environment, such as what seems to have happened in my mother’s family. I would urge everyone in this country to see the film “12 Years a Slave”. It depicts the brutality of the era far better than I can say here.
To help regulate the relationship between slave and owner, including legal support for keeping the slave as property, slave codes were established. These codes gave slave-owners absolute power over the enslaved Africans. While each state had its own slave code, many concepts were shared throughout the slave states. Even though slave codes had many common features, such as not teaching slaves to read or write, each state had specific codes or variations that suited the laws in that region.
By the mid-19th century, America's westward expansion, along with a growing abolition movement in the North, would provoke a great debate over slavery that would tear the nation apart in the bloody American Civil War from 1861 through 1865. Though the Union victory freed the nation's 4 million slaves, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the tumultuous years of Reconstruction from 1865 through 1877 to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.
During the era when my grandparents and parents lived in the Deep South the Jim Crow laws replaced the slave codes. Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism.
The Jim Crow system was undergirded by the following beliefs and rationalizations: whites were superior to blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, and civilized behavior; sexual relations between blacks and whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America; so treating blacks as equals would encourage interracial sexual unions; any activity which suggested social equality encouraged interracial sexual relations; if necessary, violence must be used to keep blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.
Of course, in the back of my grandparent’s and parent’s minds was the real threat and possibility of being lynched. Lynchings took place most frequently in the Southern United States from 1890 to the 1920s, with a peak in the annual toll in 1892. It is associated with re-imposition of white supremacy in the South after the Civil War. Black Americans, and importantly, some poorer Whites active in the pursuit of integration rights, were regularly lynched in the South during Reconstruction. Lynchings reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern states changed their constitutions and electoral rules to disfranchise blacks and, having regained political power, enacted a series of segregation and Jim Crow laws to reestablish White supremacy. The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
So even though slavery had been ended by the time my grandparents and parents were born, its insidious Jim Crow remnant lived on. Even now when I talk to people of my parent’s generation about what it was like to live during the Jim Crow era, they practically shudder to dredge up the memories. My uncle Joe, who is a well known jazz player on the Gulfcoast tells me it still makes him very nervous when white women talk to him at the clubs he plays in. The old fear of being physically harmed to do so is still with him. My father sometimes tells me about his own experiences with the racism he and my mother had during that era, but only when I ask. There is, even now, a deep indignation and pain buried inside them. My mother is funny. It still gives her goose bumps to be served at Howard Johnsons restaurants. Of course, in Mobile, Alabama where she grew up, she considered those restaurants the height of culinary excellence but they would not serve her there. So, I’ll tell you, when my mother sees the orange roofs of a Howard Johnsons, it brings a particular kind of smile on her face.
My father was born just 4 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., who was born in 1929. They both lived during the Jim Crow era, which has been described as “slavery by another name”. Many of King’s detractors sight his personal failings as reason to discredit him as a national hero and role model. These detractors like to talk mainly about King’s extramarital dalliances and his academic failings.
King is reported to have been quite a womanizer. In fact, in the book "And The Walls Came Tumbling Down", his best friend, Ralph Abernathy describes King's last night on the planet as a time when he sexually entertained three women whom he was not married to. The FBI is supposed to have made clandestine recordings of that night, complete with clinking glasses and unambiguous sounds of sex. King's well rumored dalliances with the opposite sex were not the only way in which we was known to be a cheater. Much has been made about his famous penchant towards plagiarism. King's plagiarism is very well documented...even to the point where some scholars have claimed that he certainly plagiarized at least 50% of his scholarly work at both the Boston University, where he did his undergraduate work, and at Crozer Theological Seminary, where our good friend Charles Harlow studied with him. His detractors point out that even his name is a fraud... he was born in 1929 the son of a Black preacher known at the time only as "Daddy King”. In 1935, "Daddy King" decided to name himself after the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. He declared to his congregation that henceforth they were to refer to him as "Martin Luther King" and to his son as "Martin Luther King, Jr." None of this name changing was ever legalized in court. "Daddy" King's son's real name is to this day is Michael King. not Martin King.
King said of his own involvement in the Civil Rights movement that he was drafted into it, and was more interested in obtaining a Doctorate in Theology than in being involved. Indeed, some detractors have said that King wanted a PhD in Theology because he wanted to be superior to other black preachers.
King later wrote... I “didn’t have to worry about anything... I was to conclude that life had been wrapped up for me in a Christmas package... Everything was done for me, and if I had a problem I could always call Daddy... Things were solved. But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little black church, down in Montgomery, Alabama. And I started preaching there. Things were going well... But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer... It was the beginning of a movement... and the people of Montgomery asked me to serve as a spokesman... I couldn’t say no.”
My friends, it is important to note that King was only 24 years old when he was asked to serve as a spokesman for the people in Montgomery.
Detractors aside, it is clear that fame was thrust upon King. He did not seek any office, or capacity other than being an effective preacher. My contention is that while it might very well be true that fame was thrust upon King, his courage was not. That came from a deep well. The reason why I spent so much time at the beginning of this address to paint a complete picture of the legal, social, moral, and spiritual environment that people of my parents and King’s generation lived in is because I wish us to consider just how dangerous it was for King to do what he did.
You see, here’s the point: I don’t care what King’s personal failings were. The thing I care about is the amazing depth of his courage. I care about his message of non-violence. I care about his call to put an end to poverty and wars fought to keep people economically deprived. I care about the sacrifices he personally made to keep the dream of racial equality alive in our country. I care about the fact that King understood his role in history and he was prepared to fight a righteous battle, no matter the consequences.
On January 30, 1956, the same year I was born, the King home was bombed. King had been speaking at a mass meeting at the First Baptist Church. When he heard the news, he told the crowd what happened, and left the church. Nearing his house, King saw blacks brandishing guns and knives, and a barricade of white policemen. King went inside and pushed through the crowd in his house to the back room to make sure Coretta and his ten-week-old baby were okay. Back in the front room of the house, some white reporters were trying to leave to file their stories, but could not get out of the house, which was surrounded by armed, angry blacks.
Taylor Branch, in Parting the Waters, tells what happened next:
“King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.' This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.’”
When the crowd of several hundred was silent, he continued, “I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
Again, I don’t care what anyone has to say about King’s personal faults. If it was my family home that had been bombed, if Carol and our ten-week-old child were harmed in that way I probably wouldn’t be saying we must meet hate with love. I like to think I wouldn’t, but you’d hear me say something more like what Malcolm X would have said. I’d probably be saying “God help you.”, and I’d mean it, and so would most self-respecting righteous men... say the same thing. But, you see, it was the fact that King did not say what most men would have said that makes him such a great man. God only knows, he must have felt fear, anger, and frustration... but he spoke about peace and justice and love instead.
King could have stayed out of the limelight. He didn’t have to do what he did. By 1968, when he was assassinated, his main work was basically done. For the five years prior to his death, King would alter the face of the Black Church. Beginning with the Montgomery Boycott, King effected a virtual reversal of black religious life. Prior to King, the Black Church had grown increasingly conservative. It might surprise you to know that many Black ministers went on record in opposition to the launching of a campaign of civil disobedience to bring an end to Jim Crow segregation. Of course this prompted his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Martin Luther King helped to make the black church and every American reject discrimination against other Americans of every race and color.
To his family, King was murdered because he was no longer the King of the March on Washington, simply asking for the whites only signs to come down. He had grown radical: the King of 1968 was trying to build an interracial coalition to end the war in Vietnam and force major economic reforms--starting with guaranteed annual incomes for all. They charge that the government, probably with Lyndon Johnson's knowledge, feared King might topple the "power structure" and had him assassinated. It turns out there is strong evidence to support the King’s family’s contentions, especially that his killer, James Earl Ray, did not act alone. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who was keenly aware of his place in history and the cost it would exact.
Addressing an audience at Bishop Charles J. Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968, King affirmed his optimism despite the “difficult days” he said that lay ahead. “Well, I don’t know what will happen now” he declared, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. 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. So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The following evening the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. took place as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
So what effect did Martin Luther King, Jr. have on the world, one might ask? When I first started to write this sermon I thought it would be hard to find solid examples of his enduring legacy beyond our shores. However, it is not difficult to read about how powerful the effect of King’s actions and words have deeply effected so many people around the world.
King's dignified appeal to the better nature of his countrymen had a resonance far wider than just the United States. When he addressed what he called "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation," he would inadvertently set off a worldwide movement for racial emancipation. Tangible evidence of the long march he set off on 50 years ago can be found in the endless roads and civic facilities around the world to which the name Martin Luther King has been appended - celebrating the American civil rights leader's universal cry for a more generous and humane world.
Among those chosen to speak King's hallowed words, and talk of his influence on them are Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama; Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to go to school; Maya Angelou, the American poet, and Joan Baez, the voice of the American civil rights movement.
So, how did Martin Luther King, Jr. save the world? I believe his friend Ralph Abernathy said it best
at a speech given at the Commemoration service for Martin Luther King on January 15th , 1969:
“He was the redeemer of the soul of America. He taught the nation that "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," if followed to its ultimate conclusion, would only end in a totally blind and toothless society. He discovered that the most potent force for revolution and reform in America is nonviolence. He knew, as the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee has written, that if America is saved, it will be through the black man who can inject new dimensions of non-violence into the veins of our civilization.”
And so it was! And that, my dear friends, is how Martin Luther King, Jr. saved the world.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!