Last Wednesday the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 85
had he not been struck down by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968.
Today his birthday is being observed by many Americans through service
projects aimed at making life better for the less fortunate.
They are consistent with the mission of the civil rights leader whose
vision of racial and economic equality is best remembered by his “I
Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial that highlighted the
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
More than half a century later, much still needs to be done to achieve
the goals outlined by King, not the least of which is a world without
violence. He was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the
Vietnam War because of the carnage it produced. If King were alive
today he would undoubtedly lend his voice to the growing outcry for
tighter gun control, especially in light of the massacres committed by
shooters in this nation with sickening regularity.
King certainly would be appalled at the high number of injuries and
murders committed annually by gunmen in Chester, Pa., where, from 1948 to
1951 he was on staff at Calvary Baptist Church while studying at the
old Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland.
In 1964, when he was 35, King became the youngest person ever awarded
the Nobel Prize for Peace. The next year he received the Judaism and
World Peace Award of the Synagogue Council of America.
King earned those accolades because he waged a peaceful war against
bigotry, although he and his supporters were often met with brutality,
even by police. After Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to
relinquish her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., King led a
382-day boycott of the city's bus lines. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional.
Seven years later, King was arrested in Alabama, where racial
discrimination was rampant, for defying a court order barring
demonstrations. Even his fellow ministers chastised him, calling his
behavior “unwise and untimely.” King's response to them was his
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he explained why civil
disobedience is sometimes necessary to bring light to an unjust law.
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells
him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment
in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice,
is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” wrote King.
A year later, King's peaceful vigilance was rewarded. In 1964 the
U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing nationwide, discrimination
based on race and gender. King's defiance of discriminatory
legislation was the continuation of efforts that began more than a
century earlier by abolitionists in the United States. For example,
Thomas Garrett, a Quaker born in Upper Darby, Pa., in 1789, helped more than
2,700 slaves escape to freedom during 40 years as a station master on
the Underground Railroad. He was fined $5,400 in 1848 for “harboring
That peaceful defiance of an unjust law brings to mind the current
campaign for marriage equality by gay and lesbian couples and their
supporters in Pennsylvania and other states that have banned same-sex
One of King's advisers, in fact, was Bayard Rustin, coordinator of the
1963 March on Washington that drew an estimated 250,000 peaceful
protesters. A West Chester native who attended Cheyney University in
Thornbury, Rustin was not only an outspoken supporter of racial
equality, he was an openly gay man who was jailed for his
homosexuality in Pasadena, Calif., in 1953. Last Aug. 8, he was
posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President
Barack Obama who noted, “As an openly gay African American, Mr. Rustin
stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.”
Rustin was actually spurned by some of his civil rights associates
because of his sexual orientation. Obviously the Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr. was not one of them. Emulation of his unconditional tolerance
is one of the best ways to honor the civil rights pioneer on his
birthday, and every day of the year.