On April 13, 1944, a precocious 15-year-old boy from Atlanta, Georgia sat happily on a back seat reserved for blacks in the “colored” section of the bus. It was a joyful day so far for him. He had just won a public speaking contest about social equality; and he just couldn’t wait to tell his family about his achievement. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Soon thereafter, all the seats in the bus were filled up, and the bus driver quickly told Martin as well as his black teacher to surrender their seats to newly boarding white passengers. Young Martin refused at first, but his teacher whispered a reminder of the rule, “whites before blacks.” Denigrated, angry yet powerless, Martin conceded and complied nonetheless.
Unpleasant experiences with segregation and unfair treatment against colored people during his early years inevitably served to embolden young Martin’s resolve to address racial inequality in the country in which its Declaration of Independence famously begins with the dictum that “all men are created equal.” Fast-forward 20 years later, that young man from Atlanta, now respectfully addressed as Dr. King, has become the undisputed champion of racial equality for blacks in America, commanding respect from both friends and foes alike, as well as gaining allies in the highest places. When one such ally, President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, effectively ending segregation in public places, Dr. King, along with other black civil right leaders, stood dignified behind the president at the White House.
As historic as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is for black people, it is equally historic how Dr. King and his coterie of associates helped bring the law into existence. At the time black people gained their freedom a century earlier, the nation was embroiled in civil war and mayhem. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successful peaceful resistance against the British, Dr. King extrapolated that nonviolent protest is the most effective weapon against a racist and unjust society, even if it meant being constantly imprisoned and brutalized.
Perhaps peaceful nonviolent resistance made Dr. King look weak initially as well as appear to be at odds with a number of civil right leaders, especially those from the Black Power movement, who advocated a more aggressive approach to bring about social change through “by any means necessary.” Dr. King abjured this abrasive approach. He asserted that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Together with many other civil right activists, Dr. King initiated a peaceful March on Washington DC in 1963. Standing before a cheering crowd of 250,000 people, Dr. King delivered his “Dream” speech describing his vision of social equality in America so eloquently, so poignantly that it reverberated throughout the nation. The peaceful march ultimately met its objective: It galvanized both the government and its denizens of...