Martin Luther King: The Rest of the Story by Diana Lam

This Saturday, we honor an American Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We know him as a civil rights leader who was not only a keeper of peace, but also a maker of peace. His ancestors came from Africa and he was inspired by religious teachings that originated in the Middle East. Martin Luther King adapted the ways of active, dynamic non-violence pioneered by Mahatma Ghandi. As a great leader he was not bound by the particular circumstances and ideas around him. The whole world belonged to him. He was a citizen of the world.

We know that he led the yearlong boycott of the Montgomery bus system in 1955, and the march from Selma to Montgomery a decade later. We have read his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” ranking among the most important American documents. We have heard the inspiring words of his speech at the March on Washington in 1963. We know how he was taken away from us in 1968, still fighting to make real the principles on which this nation – his nation – was founded.

What we may not know as much about – what we may not recollect so readily – is the rest of the story – the people, the incidents, and the struggle for civil rights that preceded the Reverend King. Did you know, for example, that the first Black legal protest in America was in 1644, when a group of eleven African men who were servants of the Dutch West Indies Company in New York petitioned for freedom after 18 years of servitude? They were granted their freedom because they had “served the company 18 years” and had been “long since promised their freedom on the same footing as other free people in New Netherlands.” Their names were Paul d’Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Manuel de Gerrit de Rens, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, Gracia, Peter Santome, John Francisco, Little Anthony and John Fort Orange.

When we tell the story of Martin Luther King, we should also recount the story of an event that occurred nearly two centuries before his time. It happened in Boston on March 4, 1770, a date of which, in the words of Daniel Webster, “we may date the severance of the British Empire.” He was referring to the heroism of Crispus Attucks. On this occasion Crispus Attucks, an oppressed American born in slavery, was the one that carried the American standard in the prologue that laid the foundation of American history. According to eyewitnesses it was Attucks who shaped and dominated the action on the night of the event known as the Boston Massacre. And, when people faltered, it was Attucks who rallied them and urged them to stand their ground.

A half-century later, Harriet Tubman was born into slavery. When she was 25 she escaped north, and later wrote, “There was one or two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, andwhen the time come for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” And, how did freedom feel? “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such glory over everything; the sun comes like gold through the trees.” Harriet Tubman returned to the south 19 times, risking her own life to guide more than 300 slaves to freedom.

When we tell the story of Martin Luther King, we also tell the story of another courageous Black woman, one who lived generations after Harriet Tubman. Rosa Parks was tired after a full day of stitching and ironing shirts and she refused to give up her seat on the bus to accommodate a white person.  She was arrested, booked, fingerprinted and jailed. Her act of courage prompted the boycott of the city’s buses as a protest against the treatment of Blacks.

Led by Martin Luther King, who was only a 27 year-old clergyman with little experience in the techniques of mass protest, the boycott lasted 13 months, in spite of arrests and threats, while the whole world watched. Finally the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama laws requiring segregated seating on public conveyance were unconstitutional. This boycott also established Martin Luther King as a new voice in the ranks of Black leadership.

We honor and remember the words and courage of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who took the reins of the Civil Rights Movement, dedicated his life to the cause, and ultimately gave his life for it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King carried a torch that had been lit over 300 years earlier; when 11 black men petitioned successfully for the freedom they had been promised long before.

The rest of the story will be written in the years ahead by people like us. Martin Luther King’s challenge to us is to become peacemakers also. How can children practice active peace keeping? How can adults put into practice the fine words we speak today honoring Reverend King?

The answer is within us at this moment. It is in the small steps, the humble work, the caring words and gestures of our every day. We advance the cause of peace, equality and justice for all in small but important ways. It is important that we think globally, but act locally. We make a difference, one by one.

Each of us regardless of age, color of skin, background, or belief, can treat each other with common courtesy and respect. Every one of us can practice inclusion. Let’s try to break cliques and be more open to new friendships. Every one of us can stand up for what we believe, not allowing injustices to go unnoticed, even when there may be repercussions for our actions. Every one of us needs to put aside the biases and stereotypes of the past and instead learn to develop our own powers of observation and our own firsthand opinions. Every one of us can take responsibility for our mistakes. It is hard, but that is the only way to learn, even if we are embarrassed.

Each one of us needs to be a life long learner. We need to read about other people, other countries, cultures and forms of government. We can only make intelligent choices for ourselves, our families and our future if we know all the choices that are available. Every one needs to join with others to make a positive difference in our school, our neighborhoods, our cities and our nation. The power of one is multiplied many times when we join forces at school, neighborhood organization or a community wide task force. Every one of us can make an effort to serve the community on a regular basis.

We honor Martin Luther King, Jr. to bear witness. We are bearing witness to the possibilities of peace. We are bearing witness to the possibilities of goodness, and to the special energy that is unleashed when good people with good intentions join together to focus their positive energies in one direction. The 19th century abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass wrote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Our struggle is not over. Martin Luther King challenges us to complete the rest of the story.

* Photo Martin Luther King Press Conference by Marion S. Trikosko, March 26, 1964; Library of Congress.