On August 22, 2011, a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was unveiled in Washington, DC. It was the first of its kind to be erected on the National Mall—the statue of a black man. The following is a piece I wrote after President Obama’s election in 2009 as I reflected on the many firsts in Dr. King’s life and the firsts that his lifelong dream unleashed.
“The First Time”
In December 1955 an overworked black woman from Tuskegee, Alabama sat down in a place on a Montgomery bus that was not her place. Or so she’d been told. She was arrested and jailed. She’d broken a law, albeit unjust. That was a first for her.
Not long afterward, a black preacher from Georgia helped in the effort to boycott the Montgomery bus system for their unjust law. He was young and energetic. And also new, with strange new ideas. He stood up and said strange things. He helped others stand up. It was a first for him. He had a dream.
Over the next few years that young man kept standing up. In 1963, he stood up in the Birmingham jail for the cause of peace and brotherhood, and wrote a letter to a few white religious men who thought he was wrong for standing up like he did. He, and many others, stood up a few months later and they marched on Washington. A lot of people joined him. When he got there he stood up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and finally told everybody about his dream. And then, toward the end of his life, he stood up on the mountaintop in Memphis, Tennessee to help some folks in a labor union. He got shot down. It was 1968.
But his life was not wasted. That young black preacher’s stand caused four young black men to sit down Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. They got arrested and jailed. It was a first. That young black preacher’s stand caused whites and blacks across the nation to come together in peaceful protest. They marched and sang. And stood up. For equal access, equal opportunity, peace and freedom. They stood and sat. In Selma. In Little Rock. And a lot of places in between. They believed in the dream.
In response, there were bombings and beatings, and all manner of threats directed at the people who stood and sat. In 1963, a man named Bull said it was okay to use police dogs and fire hoses on the non-violent protesters, women and children included. Some people were shot. Some were burned to death. Some mysteriously disappeared. But few people were convicted for the beating and bombing and threats.
But finally one day, July 1964, the people in charge of the country decided that all the jailings, bombings, beatings, and killings were wrong. Their signatures said it was alright for a person to sit down or stand up wherever they pleased, regardless of creed or hue. Finally, all men had equal rights. Segregation based on race was bad. At least on paper, it was. That was a first. It opened the door for many other firsts for blacks. For all Americans.
On January 20, 2009, a young black man sat down in a place that no black man has ever sat. It was his place, as decided in a national election. It was a first for him. And for all of us. May it not be the last.
© 2009 L.L. Hargrove