I grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, in the 1950s and 60s. I knew that the Pitt County courthouse had signs over the water fountains and on restroom doors designating “white” and “colored,” and also remember that at the State Theatre Negroes were relegated to sit in the balcony while whites sat on the main floor. I admit being cocooned in a white, middle class world at school, at church and with friends. It wasn’t until Walter Cronkite started showing footage of the civil rights movement on TV that I woke to the reality that others didn’t enjoy the same life as mine.
There were many leaders in the civil rights movement, but none shone so brightly as Dr. Martin Luther King. Maybe television needed a face and a voice to show the world, but MLK had the words, the charisma and the vision needed to lead the mission and stir the nation’s moral conscience. Many of us remember his moving 1963 speech from the Lincoln Memorial, with thousands lining the mall in Washington. “I have a dream,” King declared, and painted the vision of what a more moral nation would be like. He encapsulated that vision from Amos 5:24, stating the movement would not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
LBJ’s commitment to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 might have happened anyway, but King was the catalyst.
The reprinting of The Charlotte Observer’s 2018 MLK Day editorial reminded us King wasn’t the “cuddly” image many today have. He espoused nonviolence, but he was a fighter for civil rights. Anytime you attempt to get people in power to give up or share their power you know there is probably going to be a fight.
Lib and I had the opportunity to visit the Civil Rights museum in Birmingham, Alabama. We went into the church where a bomb killed four little girls during the bus boycott. We watched the news footage of police opening fire hoses on peaceful protestors, of a bus similar to one where Rosa Parks would not be moved, of a jail cell similar to the one where MLK wrote the letters from a Birmingham jail.
To some, Martin Luther King Day might just be another day off work or school. To others, it’s another workday and there are some still who resist the holiday, but it is a day to reflect on this nation’s struggles for civil rights and to pay tribute to MLK as one who raised awareness, challenged the status quo and urged us to be better.
My reflection during the recent MLK Day forced me to acknowledge that the fight isn’t over. Justice still doesn’t roll down like waters or righteousness like scripture’s mighty stream. There are many evidences of racial hatred, discrimination and injustice.
I wondered who is today’s moral voice?
I believe Dr. William Barber has taken up that mantle. Beginning with his Moral Monday protests and leadership of the state NAACP, Barber raised anew the call for justice for the poor, for people of color, for women and the LGBTQ. Now ascending to a national stage, his Poor People’s Campaign has made him, like King, a lightning rod. Like King, he is convicted by the righteousness of the cause, has the charisma and the words to remind us that rights and privilege are not just for the few, but for all.
Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.