7 minute read

The Time is Always Right to do the Right Thing

There’s an unlikely yet important starting point from which to understand the Martin Luther King Jr. story. Traditionally, his story is told via the events of Montgomery, Alabama in 1956, where Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white patron on a bus – an act that led to a large-scale demonstration against segregation, which thrust Dr. King into the spotlight. Another often chosen starting point is the Harlem book signing in 1958, when a well-dressed 42-yearold woman stabbed the reverend in the chest with a letter opener. But a more obscure moment that emboldened the lauded civil rights activist begins in Ghana – not exactly an obvious choice when considering the shaping of this American icon. In 1957, a year after that famous bus boycott, Dr. King – an advocate for social justice, equality and dialogue – travelled to the African nation to witness its independence celebrations. He was invited there by its newly elected prime minister Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana had just become a Republic under Nkrumah’s guidance, and in the process became the first nation to gain independence from European colonialism.

“The minute I knew I was coming to Ghana, I had a very deep emotional feeling. A new nation was being born. It symbolised the fact that a new order was coming into being, and an old order was passing away,” he said. The trip resonated in his mind and while the USA itself was not colonised, Dr. King finally had a concrete example of just what could be achieved through action. Having allowed his thoughts of the trip to percolate, once back on American soil Dr. King delivered a sermon, in which he recounted, “Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it… Freedom is never given to anybody. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance. … So don’t go out this morning with any illusions. … If we wait for it to work itself out, it will never be worked out! Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil.” Dr. King is known for such poignant public address. Many will immediately recall his I Have a Dream speech – where among the rhetoric was his wish that, “…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Yet King’s body of work is immense – in his zenith, he gave as many as 450 speeches a year. He drew upon the Ghanaian experience in order to inspire the masses, and this was a common tactic that fuelled his speechwriting, explains Dr. Lewis V Baldwin, a professor, historian, and author of several Dr. Kingrelated books (including The Voice of Conscience, Never to Leave Us Alone and In a Single Garment of Destiny). “Dr. King learned a lot through his time with people, and so many of his ideas came from mobilising them. He was such an eclectic thinke; he was able to bring together ideas from so many different outlets, and synthesise them into concepts that would work in the context of a social movement.” Growing up in Alabama in the late 1940s and early 50s, Dr. Baldwin experienced first hand the immense power of the activist’s charisma, and has become ingrained in the enduring ‘King Legacy’: he was inducted into The Martin Luther King Jr. International Collegium of Scholars. Watching grainy video footage of Dr. King addressing a crowd is empowering in itself. But conversing with someone who was actually in that sea of people, listening to Dr. King’s speeches, fosters a deeper understanding of his impact.

Dr. King was such an eclectic thinker, he was able to bring together ideas from so many different outlets, and synthesise them into concepts that would work in the context of a social movement

Dr. Baldwin was one of millions directly affected by Dr. King’s words. “I was very much inspired by the movement, and its leader, and participated in some of the student demonstrations in Camden, Alabama," he says. "I saw Dr. King when he came to my hometown, and that opportunity to participate in the student demos meant that I had a sense of what was going on in terms of the wider scope of civil rights activity,” he says. Baldwin’s life path was forever set on a purposeful cause. “I was a freshman at Talladega College at the time Dr. King was killed in 1968, and I asked myself, ‘How could I help sustain his legacy and build on it?’ I decided to do so through education – becoming an academic, so I could have the resources and the intellect to write about the civil rights movement, to teach about it. The seeds were sown during my high school years.” The mind of Marin Luther King Jr., who was raised in a family with a reputation of civil rights activism, was also shaped from an early age. His father, Rev. Martin Luther King Snr., fought against segregation in Atlanta while his grandfather, Rev. A D Williams, preached ‘social gospel’ and was the first president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Williams successfully fought for the opening of the first black school in Georgia – Booker T Washington High School – which King Jr. himself attended. “There was a component to his educational experience that led him to come up with methods to fight social evil,” says Dr. Baldwin. “He admitted that as he learned more about racism and studied its history, he felt compelled to come up with a method to fight against that kind of thing, and education had a lot to do with that.” It is one thing to read about history, and an entirely different thing to decide ‘I can change it, and I can break what has gone before me’. King’s vast reserves of self-belief are awe-inspiring. One of his iconic utterances was, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”; he believed this even as a student. Into adulthood, King never stopped absorbing new ideas, keeping the urgency for change fresh and the harsh truths of society raw. He earned a graduate school degree, then later a PhD. He was seminary trained, and studied speaking techniques from academics and clergymen (be they white or black). Once he had penned his speeches, he would sound the chosen words off his closest aides, such as Andrew Young (an American politician) and Ralph Abernathy (a close friend and baptist minister). A blend of academic accomplishment was fused with his brutal lessons from life. Dr. Baldwin believes King’s exposure to segregation at an early age was another component to his emergence as the leader of the movement. “I grew up with the ‘White’ and ‘Coloured’ signs on the doors of restrooms and on water fountains, and Dr. King also experienced a lot of hatred growing up; sometimes it can break you and sometimes it can inspire you to speak up against that kind of behaviour,” Baldwin asserts. Raised in the South among the people he fought for, King “was such a dynamic speaker and he spoke the language of what he called ‘the least of these’ – ordinary common folk,” explains Baldwin.

“He understood the people and the culture – particularly that of the black church, which was an institution he used to great effect as a power base and a de facto platform for civil rights activities.” Dr. King was peaceful yet became brutal in his assessment, refusing to exonerate those able to make a change, yet who were unwilling to act. As such, he honed his speechwriting to resonate with higher powers, thinking in political and legal terms – striving for ‘coalitions of conscience’, to implement laws that would stand for justice and more inclusiveness both in the USA and overseas. He worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and bishop James Pike on a ‘Declaration of Conscience’, for example, to fight racism and economic injustice and violence – while continuing to walk shoulder-to shoulder with the affected; “He had the ability to connect with common, ordinary people, and also with the high and mighty; comfortable walking with kings and queens as well as with the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement,” urges Dr. Baldwin. “His resonance had not only to do with his speaking and oratorical skills, but also his magnetic personality. People were drawn to him, and he connected with them, with the capacity to mobilise and organise people around unified, shared goals.”

A lesser-known fact about the activist is that, before his overseas visit and formulating ideas in Montgomery, he spoke in terms of a ‘world house’ in which we learned to live together in peace as brothers and sisters, irrespective of nationality and culture. “We have become a village – ‘a world neighbourhood,’ he called it – and the elimination of poverty was not only his message to America but depicted worldwide ambition,” says Dr. Baldwin. On home territory, Martin Luther King Jr. catalysed change: “Many of the symbols of hate and racism have been scrubbed down, African Americans and other people of colour have more access now – to public accommodation, public facilities, the right to vote and to hold public office, access to academic institutions. We have risen to some extent in American corporate life, through better employment opportunities. So we have progressed in so many ways,” conveys Dr. Baldwin. “We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go before seeing the complete realisation of Dr. King’s dream, of a world free of intolerance, injustice and bigotry,” he hastens to add. Yes, there may be distance left to run, but it was the collision of Dr. King’s tools – intellect, experience, knowledge of history, unwavering desire for change and the leadership to effect it – that helped propel America this far. When Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he was not merely sharing his dream with 25,000 attendees. Such was his power, Dr.King's words reached each of them, as individuals. “Now is the time to make the real promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” he extolled in the notorious speech. His words emanated far beyond Washington, to inspire the entire world.

He experienced a lot of hatred; it can break you, or it can inspire you to speak up against that kind of behaviour