Martin Luther King was a preacher, a visionary, and an activist; one of the people who immediately had a clear sense about what protests against Jim Crow segregation could mean.
When King gave his first speech in what would become the civil rights movement, he spoke to a packed church sanctuary of bus boycott participants in Montgomery, Alabama.
However, his vision in that moment made him address the nation, framing black Montgomery’s dissent as Christian and non-violent. When King stood to speak, he articulated a vision of what was possible. He didn’t focus on the buses, but on the bigger picture. He told the world that “the only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest.”
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In the course of his career as an activist and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King coupled non-violence with his vision of ending racial segregation, and pushed for full voting rights for black southerners whose lives had been limited by racial violence and second-class citizenship. But after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King began to look beyond the southern movement for racial justice.
He protested unequal housing in Chicago, dissented against the Vietnam War, and was planning to lead an interracial coalition against the blight of poverty in the Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his assassination.
So it is wonderful to see King memorialized in Washington, D.C. between presidents who were architects of a vision of American citizenship. At the helm of the civil rights movement, King called into question what citizenship meant if it was not extended on an equal basis to all Americans, reminding all of us all of the “inescapable network of mutuality” and teaching us that all Americans are “tied in a single garment of destiny.”
However, it is precisely that mutuality and collectivity that we must remember as we memorialize King.
King was a leader in a movement that required many different kinds of leaders to surmount the challenge of racial inequality. Let’s take again the example of Montgomery. Protests began in black Montgomery after the arrest of Rosa Parks, a leader in the local and state chapter of the NAACP, who had been advocating for voting rights, the protection of black women against sexual assault from white men, and fair conditions on city buses for years.
Parks’ arrest served as a call to action so immediately E.D. Nixon, head of local chapter of the NAACP, and Joanne Robinson, head of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, went to work, spreading the idea of a boycott of the buses that Monday morning. There had been other protests against segregated conditions on buses most recently in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1953. There had even been protests against the segregation of streetcars in Montgomery fifty years prior to the bus boycott. But in this moment of dissent, King made a difference, but only in concert with the leadership of others and the will of thousands of people in Montgomery who participated in the long term protest. Maids and seamstresses, laborers of all kinds walked to work each day. In the cold, in rain, and in the heat, it was the people of black Montgomery that provided the platform upon which King could emerge as a leader.
The movement would be shaped behind the scene by experienced activists like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levinson who provided tactical and logistic support that helped King found and organization of activist preachers that would become the SCLC.
The campaign for voting rights would be buoyed by the work of educators like Septima Clark and Myles Horton of the Highlander Folk School who founded the Citizenship Schools that strengthened black literacy and created determination. And the larger struggle for civil rights was energized by students like Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and John Lewis who after leading the sit-ins founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
So when I look at the stone from which the determined King emerges, I see the faces of others. Ella Baker’s constant and determined gaze is there, leading NAACP fieldwork in the 1940s, giving student protestors the intellectual space enough to found their own organization called SNCC in 1960. When I look at the rough places in the stone, I see the determined face of Diane Nash, insisting that in the face of extreme violence the Freedom Rides had to continue.
When I look at the stone, I see Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who organized Birmingham, Alabama as a labor leader and minister, facing extreme violence at every turn. When I look at the texture of the stone, I see the calm bravery of Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, Bob Moses, and Fannie Lou Hamer and the hundreds of others who stood in the line of fire in Mississippi, simply to enable African Americans to cast a vote. It is this texture, the varied personalities, the disagreements about tactics and approaches that made the movement move.
It is this larger community that we have to remember when we look at the rendering of King’s face. I’m sure that he would have it no other way.