More than a week has passed since we commemorated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights leader who fought injustice without resorting to violence. A politically astute clergyman, he rose from relative obscurity to become a thought leader of world renown, and the father of two major pieces of civil rights legislation.
As lawyers continuing to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, much of what he said during his tragically brief time here on earth has the quality of timelessness. But for us, nothing resonates more powerfully than “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, a statement intuitive to all of us.
He wrote that line in April 1963 in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail ” an explanation about why the time had come to organize non-violent demonstrations to ensure that African Americans be accorded certain rights under the United States Constitution, the same rights white people took for granted. He made clear that he was in this struggle for the long haul, willing to bear the consequences of his actions.
The Birmingham marches and sit-ins in public spaces – in violation of a court order Dr. King considered unjust – sought the desegregation of department store facilities as well as fair hiring. By May of that same year, television footage of police using dogs and fire hoses against demonstrators, including children, provoked a national outcry against segregationists.
Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, seems embedded in the minds of any of us who lived through the ‘60’s, and of school children throughout the world today. The March helped build the momentum to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a major accomplishment for the civil rights movement and a milestone in helping to make real the promise of our Constitution.
The speech Dr. King delivered when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, described as “an often ignored masterpiece,” is beautifully emblematic of his style:
“After contemplation, I conclude that this award . . . is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”
By January of 1964, Dr. King turned his attention to seeking passage of a Voting Rights Act, signed into law on August 6, 1965. Again there was violence against protestors, but he encouraged them to exercise extreme self-restraint. He reasoned, correctly, that if the African-American vote continued to be unlawfully suppressed by those placing obstacles in the paths of those trying to register, nothing would change.
Dr. King was willing to risk his life to advance the cause of constitutional rights. Sadly, we lost this heroic advocate of non-violence to an assassin’s bullet in 1968, when he was just 39. We are deeply grateful for the changes he wrought, but we cannot help wonder what else he could have done had he been given the chance.