This year is the 28th national observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, which means there is now a generation to whom the King holiday has always existed.
Still, 2014 stands out even more because it marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. With Barack Obama in the second year of his second presidential term, it has been easy for some to forget the long road that has brought us all here.
At the King Center’s annual Salute to Greatness dinner held in Atlanta Saturday, January 19, four days after what would have been Dr. King’s 85th birthday, his friend and comrade Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and one-time ambassador, reminded those in attendance of the bumps that got us here.
Today, it’s hard to think anyone would distance themselves from a Nobel Peace Prize winner of any color or not actively support the civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s, especially under Dr. King’s leadership. But, fifty years ago, it wasn’t so natural to a lot of people that African-Americans deserved freedom and equality and even those high up feared rocking the boat.
“I went with Martin Luther King to Norway and, when we came back, we were not really welcomed at the White House,” Young reminded all gathered. Even in Atlanta, he shared, “There was a controversy over whether or not we would have a dinner here honoring Martin Luther King and Rabbi [Jacob] Rothschild of The Temple and Ivan Allen, the mayor, stood up for a dinner honoring Martin Luther King.”
Like Young, who had been there, some others in the room understood that there were white businesses and other opposition to honoring the achievements of a black man specifically in interracial company in the South. “And then [J.] Paul Austin, the CEO of Coca-Cola said ‘wait a minute: Coca-Cola cannot be in a city that refuses to honor a Nobel Peace Prize winner,’” Young continued. “’You all need to decide whether you need Coca-ColaCoca-Cola, because Coca-Cola doesn’t need Atlanta.’ That’s the kind of leadership that brought us here.”
Perhaps even more telling is the reaction from President Lyndon B. Johnson when Dr. King returned from Oslo. “Coming out of an hour-and-a-half-long meeting with President Johnson, President Johnson had an hour and a half of excuses but he also he had a record on which to run,” Young said. “He had delivered the 1964 Civil Rights Act and so he thought it was really a little ungrateful of us to come and ask him to come right back in 1965 with a Voting Rights Act and he made a very strong case until we ended up agreeing ‘Thank you very much Mr. President for meeting with us.’”
“As I walked out of the White House with Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy and Walter Fauntroy, I said to Dr. King, because the president had kept saying over and over again ‘I don’t really have the power. You think I have more power than I have.’ And, as we walked down that dark road, there was no press. They waited until late at night to invite us in and I said to Dr. King: ‘what do you think?’”
“Here was a five-foot-seven-inch giant who saidsaid, ‘I think we got to figure out a way to get this president some power.’ I say this to you,” Young continued, “because he wasn’t counting on himself and it was only three or four days after we got back that Amelia Boynton [Robinson, the civil rights leader in Selma, Alabama who met Dr. King and Coretta Scott King when he pastored the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott] came over from Selma and we agreed to go to Selma on January the second, 1965,” he said, adding emphasis. “By the end of March, 1965, this same president who did not have the power was standing before a joint session of Congress and introducing voting rights legislation which transformed the South and the world.”
And though today the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a more popular conversation point, the importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Johnson signed into law July 2, 1964, cannot be downplayed. The landmark legislation, which President John F. Kennedy called for in his historic June 11, 1963 speech, was delivered the evening after Gov. George Wallace was forced, due to Kennedy federalizing the Alabama National Guard, to accept the integration of the University of Alabama by Vivian Malone (Attorney General Eric Holder’s sister-in-law) and James A. Hood. Sadly, Medgar Evers was murdered that evening in the wee hours of June 12.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made certain discriminatory voting practices illegal, opened public accommodations to all, supported school desegregation efforts and prohibited racial discrimination among schools, hospitals and other entities that received federal taxpayer dollars; racial, religious and sex discrimination in employment was banned plus “whites only” everything became illegal. This gateway legislation, the first major civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875, paved the way for subsequent legislation that has granted many freedoms that most of us take for granted today.