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MLK Jr: The King of Justice

FEARLESS: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

FIFTY YEARS ago this week, the man who came to symbolise the US civil rights movement, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, was brutally gunned down outside a motel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Although half a century has passed since Dr King’s assassination, neither time nor events have diminished his influence or legacy.

Indeed, it is the case that the name Martin Luther King has become synonymous with the words justice, equality and peace, and that his words are still cited by those campaigning to bring about change in their circumstances.

History shows that Dr King’s campaign for African-Americans’ equal rights and justice in the 1950s and ‘60s (along- side other men and women) helped to transform US society and inspired many beyond US shores.

His leadership of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted over a year and resulted in the cessation of segregated public transport in that city, led to an invitation to Ghana in March 1957 to celebrate its freedom from Britain.

He was feted in India – a country he visited in 1959 – and was regarded as the heir to Mahatma Gandhi, due to his constant references to the architect of non-violent civil disobedience. His activities encouraged a generation of black and Asian Britons in the 1960s to challenge the rampant racism that characterised Britain at the time.

Fast forward several decades, and during the early months of what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010, those leading the protests quoted Dr King’s speeches in their efforts to bring about peaceful change in their Middle Eastern countries.

Likewise, in the lead-up to the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, campaigners on both sides, including former British PM Gordon Brown, made liberal references to Dr King’s ‘dream’.

And even the Brexit debates, prior to the historic vote in June 2016, saw certain activists quoting (and misquoting) Dr King’s words on freedom. The question is, what motivated Dr King to take up the cause for which he would live and eventually die?

There is little doubt that his commitment to justice was birthed and nourished by the Christian scriptures he read as a child and later studied as a student.

After graduating from the historic African American university, Morehouse College, Dr King continued his studies at a religious seminary, and later Boston University where he gained a PhD in Systematic Theology.

His religious studies, coupled with his experiences as an African-American living un- der racist segregation, resulted in a methodological approach that used justice, truth, love and compassion to challenge discrimination, encourage self- worth and inspire hope.

There is little doubt that Dr King saw himself as first and foremost a preacher who had been called by God “to stand up for justice and truth”. As far as he was concerned, “injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere”, which meant he was as concerned with the plight of wartorn inhabitants of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as he was with his racially oppressed African American brothers in Selma, Alabama.

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In the US, King’s commitment to bring about change for African Americans was part of a focus to develop what he described as a “Beloved Community” – a society based on the twin pillars of economic and racial justice. He recognised early on that it was one thing to be able to sit next to white folks in a desegregated diner; and another to have the money to buy a hamburger.

The “Beloved Community” was also an outworking of his celebrated ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington in 1963, which rather than being a vague, utopian project, was rooted in a radical commitment to engender systemic change in the USA.

For all of this to take place, Dr King believed it was imperative to ‘speak truth to power’; to confront those who were part of an unfair status quo that oppressed the marginalised and disposed.

This took tremendous courage. King was jailed more than 20 times during his life by authorities that feared his actives and influence. Racist vigilantes firebombed his parsonage, and right-wing militia groups constantly spewed out death threats to both him and his family.

On hearing of president John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Dr King turned to his wife, Loretta, and suggested that the same fate would happen to him because "This [the USA] is a sick society."

Like most 'prophets', he was right. Almost five years later, Dr King was cut down in his prime by a similar lone gunman, only one with a history of racist and criminal activity.

It is ironic that this year’s 50th anniversary falls so close to Easter, a time we associate with sacrifice, death, new beginnings and hope – traits that are also linked to Dr King.

One could argue that Dr King’s dream remains unfulfilled. This anniversary is an opportunity for men and women with a similar vision, passion, courage and desire to make his dream a reality.

Richard Reddie is the author of Martin Luther King Jr: History Maker, published by Lion Hudson, 2011

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