Every January, the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday provides the nation with a chance to truly grapple with the life of the black Southern preacher who sought nothing less than the transformation of American society. During this annual reflection, we will be inundated with excerpts from his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech; politicians and pundits will expound on the theme of “love” in King’s sermons and exhortations; corporations will air glossy images in celebration.
And, if we are not careful, we will miss out — once again — on the opportunity to grapple with the myriad ways King sought to move the nation forward. Racial justice, economic equality, and the relationship between love, power and justice — these and other issues motivated King during his time in the spotlight. However, there is one aspect of King’s journey that we continually overlook: his strong commitment to young people.
Throughout his career, King understood the role young people could play — indeed, had to play – in transforming American society. To this end, King treated young people as essential partners in the struggle for justice. From the early years of his journey to his final days in Memphis, King modeled a relationship with young people we would do well to emulate. King believed in the power of young people to be powerful change agents. He also understood the symbolic power of young people taking a crucial role in a burgeoning social revolution.
Beginning in the years after the Brown v. Board decision, King watched as students across the South took centerstage in the attempt to integrate the region’s schools. In April of 1959, he co-chaired the Youth March for Integrated Schools. The march brought 26,000 young people to the grounds of the Washington Monument to demand the president and Congress push for the “orderly and speedy” integration of the nation’s schools. He praised the determination exhibited by those in attendance, declaring that their presence at the March meant they had discovered “the central fact of American life — the extension of democracy for all Americans depends upon complete integration of Negro Americans.”
While King regaled his audience with familiar themes of nonviolence and progress, he also didn’t shy away from the perils of protest and civic participation evident in the late 1950s. For the better part of a decade, the American South had become awash in racial violence. After World War II, black veterans returned home to join in the fight to bring true democracy to the South and the nation. Voting rights and integration became the dominant pursuits. Rising expectations — and rising levels of protest — were met with naked racist violence.
Racist attacks claimed the lives of black veterans, voting rights advocates, civil rights leaders and unsuspecting people murdered for sport. Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi in 1955, laid bare the depth of the region’s willing brutality. Racial terrorists bombed churches, houses, synagogues and businesses for real and imagined support of civil rights. The attempted integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas revealed that communities across the South were prepared to engage in open rebellion against even modest efforts to integration the schools. The murder or attempted murder of voting rights activists in Mississippi and Florida also revealed the region’s determination to subvert a growing movement.
King told the young people at the march that, along with the civic obligation to vote came a potentially high price: “Attempting to exercise this right, you may be taking your life in your hands.” King didn’t coddle these young people. As active participants in the movement to gain greater freedom, he didn’t hesitate to plainly state the high price they might pay for their dedication.
The titanic pressures of movement building often complicated the relationships King forged with young activists. Nevertheless, throughout his career, he treated young activists from all walks of life as critical partners in the struggle. Frequently, young people were in the vanguard of the movement, creating new paths with actions taken without regard to the thoughts of the “elders.” In more than a few instances, King found himself responding to actions undertaken by high school and college students.
In February of 1960, the sit-in movement began in Greensboro, North Carolina, and quickly spread across the region. Later in the year, students in the Atlanta University Center called on King to join them in protesting segregation in downtown stores. King agreed and, in the words of King biographer Taylor Branch, took “his first deliberate step towards prison.” King’s decision to follow the lead of student activists in Atlanta brought his star power to the nascent tactic and catalyzed the emerging strategy of mass-based nonviolent direct action.
King formed some of the most powerful alliances with young people in the last two years of his life. In 1966, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference turned its sights to the rampant racial inequality that existed outside the South. In the summer of that year, King launched a campaign in Chicago. Once he arrived, the SCLC organized a massive gang summit, bringing together more than a hundred members from some of the city’s largest gangs.
The purpose of the meeting was twofold. First, it was an effort to minimize the high levels of violence that tore through black communities by calling for a cessation of violence. Second, King hoped to bring gang members into the nonviolent movement as marshals and organizers. For the duration of the movement, gang members marched with King and participated in strategy sessions. King, one of the most influential men in the nation, carved out an intimate space for these young people — to listen to their complaints, learn from their insights and engage in the vigorous give and take of building new possibilities.
Let’s remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 90th birthday by remembering what may be one of his most underappreciated attributes: his willingness to learn from, listen to, be challenged by and grow with young people from all walks of life.
Dr. Charles McKinney is Neville Frierson Bryan chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.