Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Americans prepare to honour a black hero

by Dr. A. B. Assensoh

The assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, shook Americans from all walks of life and the world at large. Beginning in January 1986, his birthday will be commemorated nationally as a public holiday in the United States. Dr A. B. Assensoh, who is completing his post-doctoral dissertation on King for the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, England, reflects on the life of this noble Black American theologian and civil rights leader.
It was on January 15, 1929, that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of blessed memory, was born in the American city of Atlanta, Georgia, to the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and his wife, Mrs Alberta Christine Williams King. How- ever, President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983, signed a Congressional Bill into law to make the third Monday in January of each year a national holiday. The occasion - beginning in 1986- is in commemoration of the birthday of King, the youngest person in history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the time of King's assassination on April 4, 1968, he was only 39 years old. Yet, he had done enough for America's ethnic minorities particularly his fellow Blacks to warrant the national holiday honour, which has been bestowed on only two other persons previously, namely President George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

Indeed, King's selflessness made his untimely death inevitable. Very often, he told his audiences: "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live." Above all, as a pragmatic and rational leader, he accepted the fact that one day, death would place its icy hands on him, and he would be no more. When King visualised his own death

As a theologian of great merit, King used the pulpit to preach his beliefs. Therefore, on February 4, 1968 barely three months before his brutal death - he spoke eloquently about his death at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was the Co-Pastor.

Prophetically, King told his audience: "Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards.

"I'd like to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. That I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind."

On the day President Reagan signed the King holiday bill into law, he made a brief but very moving statement of great historicity. He told the audience, including King's widow Mrs Coretta Scott King, inter alia: "In 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down by a brutal assassin, his life cut short at the age of 39. But those 39 short years had changed America forever. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had guar- anteed all Americans equal use of public accommodations, equal access to pro- grams financed by federal funds, and the right to compete for employment on the sole basis of individual merit."

About the national holiday in honour of King, President Reagan specifically underscored: "Now our nation has decided to honour Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for. We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it and we should remember that in far too many countries, people like King never had the opportunity to speak out, at all."

It is, at this juncture, very significant to note that although several former American conservative Presidents were often described as being utterly insensitive to the sufferings and over-all plight of America's ethnic minorities, Mr Reagan was moved by King's noble deeds to con- firm the fears and some of the cogent reasons which propelled the assassinated civil rights leader to champion the cause of the down-trodden from the mid-1950s to the time of his death in 1968.

Appropriately, President Reagan also confirmed that many many Americans were unchanged by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's indefatigable struggle for freedom and justice. He punctuated his 1983 remarks with the following words: "But traces of bigotry still mar America. So each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but re- dedicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live every day..."

The indomitable Mrs. King, the widow, also made brief but very crucial remark in response to those made by President Reagan. About her late husband, she stated among other lofty details: "All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition which the world bestows, the Nobel Peace Prize."

Mrs. King testified further: "In his own life example, he (King) symbolized what was right about America, what was noblest and best, what human beings have pursued since the beginning of history. He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His non-violent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.

America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King, Jr., became her pre-eminent non-violent commander. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his spirit lives within all of us. Thank God for the blessing of his life and his leadership and his commitment. What manner of man was this? May we make ourselves worthy to carry on his dream and create the love community."

Apart from his theological prowess, the Rev. Dr. King was, also, a man of letters. He wrote numerous newspaper and maga- zine articles, scholarly treatises and books in the 39 years that he lived. His account of the 1954-55 Montgomery bus boycott, which propelled him into national prominence, was spelt out eloquently in Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. It was followed by The Measure of A Man, an ecumenical treatise which documented the moral, philo- sophical and religious foundations upon which he based the civil rights movement he so efficiently and fearlessly led. Other publications included Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, published in 1967; Strength to Love, a collection of his 1950-60 sermons; and The Trumpet of Conscience, King's essays on love and peace.

He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth and when he discovered it, he embraced it.

By his unique accomplishments, the Rev. Dr. King would be absorbed by history. It is, therefore, not very sur- prising that even his own classmates and friends ranked him highly in varied ways. In the context of American and world history, King's place is assuredly secure. Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, King's class- mate at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and now President of Dillard University in New Orleans, reflected on King's place in history in the following words: "In the context of American and world history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., no doubt, ranks as one of the greatest of the apostles and servants of world peace and justice. His place in history, as an apostle of peace, is secure. What is important here is his great vision, sacrificial commit- ment, and supreme integrity."

To many Americans, King is their hero. Therefore, they are happily awaiting the maiden observance of his birthday, in 1986, as a public holiday.

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