The (r)evolution of MLK
from Segregation to Elevation
Revolution: a forcible, sudden, or complete change, in favor of a new system.
Over the previous two centuries, this country has gradually evolved from one where only the wealthy male landowner fully held the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, to where we are now – still in need of much movement toward full justice and equality, but at least with the language of justice and equality in the constitution.
In 1954, Brown V Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1896 Plessy V Ferguson decision, the legal concept of “separate but equal,” in public schools. This was revolutionary, leading to the integration of our nation’s public schools, providing a major catalyst for the civil rights movement, making possible advances in desegregated housing, public accommodations, and institutions of higher education. Evolution continues in these areas, though periodically halted or reversed by elected administrations.
But “separate but equal” remained the de facto law of the land, and much effort was made towards eliminating arbitrary demarcations between where Black and white people could be, whether sitting on buses, being served at lunch counters, attending schools, or using restrooms and other public accommodations. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. first rose to national prominence in 1955, as a result of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the highly successful, community-based action that focused on integrating the Montgomery bus system.
When Martin Luther King Jr’s home was bombed in 1956, his initial reaction was to apply for a gun permit and arm his household. Bayard Rustin and other proponents of nonviolence persuaded him against the belief that guns would or could protect him and his family. His complete abandonment of guns was a revolution, though perhaps his thought behind the abandonment of weapons was more of an evolution. * The bus boycott ended in December of 1956 with a decision to allow Black riders to sit in any seat – a revolution – but real and enduring change across communities had to evolve.
Over the years of Reverend King’s storied career, he evolved, often learning from others frequently described as his “followers.” Those people are not often credited, but they certainly provided a curriculum for King, who had grown up in relative privilege having never experienced many of the harsh realities suffered by most “negroes” in the south. Later in his short life, he began to connect the dots between capitalism, imperialism, poverty, race and class- connections leading him toward revolution. The fact that he continued to speak against the Vietnam War despite criticism from others in the movement was revolutionary.
He still had a long way to go. Regarding gender — women played a limited role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Legendary organizer Ella Baker struggled to have her voice heard and her vision of a more grassroots style of organizing accepted by the male-dominated leadership. Dr. King’s veritable closeting of Bayard Rustin, his openly gay strategy genius, tells us he had a lot of work to do regarding LGBTQ inclusion and equality as well. We’d like to believe King’s thinking on these issues would have evolved.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was on a journey towards revolution, as his awareness, understanding, and analysis evolved. King’s words at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom displayed some of his evolution. His final acts in support of Memphis Sanitation Workers in 1968 focused on social justice and economic equality. In between, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March was organized to ensure that African Americans could exercise their constitutional right to vote, even in the face of a segregationist system that fought to make it impossible, through violence, denial of employment, bogus poll taxes and literacy tests, and general intimidation. The very act of organizing another march just weeks after the earlier violent and deadly attack on marchers was revolutionary.
Justice is an essential element of equality, and this Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood. Evolution is inevitable for survival. Justice is revolutionary. The struggle for justice continues.