Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Why I Celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Holiday

I gave my 7th grade history students’ an assignment a few days before the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday. The assignment was to bring to class a quotation made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The only caveat was that the quote not be taken from the “I Have A Dream” speech.

My hope was that the students would look beyond the speech that is, perhaps, the one for which he is best known and explore other speeches and read more of Dr. Kings’ works. Although “The Dream” has been called the greatest of the twentieth century; Dr. King was so much more than that. So many more speeches, books and battles encompass his total body of work. It is the summation of those works and deeds for which we admire and honor Dr. King. As I prepared for my students homework assignment, I compiled fifteen pages of quotations from Dr. King.  Dr. King’s mastery of the use of metaphor and simile paint a clear picture of what he wanted his audience to visualize. He could draw a picture with his words. These 15 pages of quotes did not come from the “The Dream” speech and reflected many nuances of his hopes and dreams for America. I hope that my students chose quotations that show his character, his integrity and his commitment to justice.

 

I also believe that it is all too easy to become fixated on this single speech and narrowly define one of the most dynamic personalities of the modern civil right era.  Most people who claim to “know the speech” only know the final one-third of the speech Dr. King made that day. The final third of “The Dream” is repeated several thousand times each January. However, the speech does not begin with, “I Have a Dream”. Rather, it begins ” Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” The next paragraph begins “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” The first two thirds of Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ speech is about the state of affairs or the plight of “Negroes” in America in 1963 and is a call for racial harmony in America. Things hoped for.

With all due respect, Dr. King, Jr. did not begin the struggle for civil rights. There were others before him that fought for Civil rights or citizenship rights. The mold for civil rights was cast in the creation of the Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “…we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”

One hundred years ago last year (1909), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a group of mostly white progressive muckrakers decided to establish an organization that would use litigation and social discourse to address the challenges of violence against African Americans during a period of very harsh racial disharmony. At the time segregation was law (Plessy vs. Ferguson) and vigilante law (lynching) were commonplace.

Through non-violent protest and use of the judicial system the NAACP fought for equality. The NAACP sought solutions to problems affecting minorities in this country and called for a change in government policy and laws to protect individuals’ civil rights.

Very much like Dr. Martin Luther King, and the NAACP, there were people living in Falls Church who envisioned educational opportunities, equality and justice for all right at the turn of the twentieth century. The history of Civil Rights here in Falls Church, Virginia is a triumphant story of a community coming together and defeating a measure that would clearly be seen as unacceptable in today’s America. In 1915, when certain elected officials in the Town of Falls Church proposed enacting a residential segregation ordinance the community reacted swiftly and boldly. The community living on Tinner Hill and other areas of Falls Church established the Colored Citizens Protective League, (CCPL) which evolved into the first rural branch of the NAACP. This branch set a precedent of national significance. Rural county branches account for the vast majority of the cases of gross inequality in this country. It took a lot of courage for African Americans to challenge the status quo in a small rural segregated town in the South in the early 1900’s. Just like Dr. King, they each put their lives and their livelihood’s on the line to fight injustice. We have reflect upon the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Kings Birmingham jail cell and protest, the March on Washington, to Selma, to Memphis, the accomplishments of one of the civil rights greatest heroes. On the corner of S. Washington and Tinner Hill Roads is a fifteen foot pink granite arch, a memorial dedicated to our own Falls Church heroes.

On the day we remember Dr. King, I too, remember the Falls Church civil rights pioneers whose struggles and sacrifices make a day of celebrating the American Spirit worthwhile.

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