Many people knew and worked with Dr. King far longer than I and other Summer of 1965 voter registration project workers, but all of us understood that the love the local people felt for him was key to getting our foot in the door to talk about voter registration. We developed quick questions to find a connection that would lead to the courthouse registrars office. Years later, I still am invited to share these stories in hopes they will inspire and restore trust in the democratic process. Here is a sample of one of my favorite talks.
KING COUNTY MLK CELEBRATION Paramount Theater, Seattle WA January 15, 2015 Thank you. I am very pleased to be here with you in beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. County – which full name I understand can be credited to community leaders including Councilmember Larry Gossett. I am in awe that in an area this size, with just 7.9% Black residents in the city of Seattle, that you can boast not one but two of the largest MLK Celebrations in the Northwest, a beautiful African American History Museum and a legacy of peaceful nonviolent demonstrations for justice including the 1960s school desegregation campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend, Rev. Dr. Samuel Berry McKinney.. In my brief remarks today, I want to touch on two themes:
- Why Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the voting rights fight was worth risking our lives for and
- What guidance his teachings give us to fight injustice today. While we may be fond of MLK’s speeches about brotherhood and integration, it is his insistent call for nonviolent action against injustice that, for me, rings loudest across the decades.
I first heard that call when I was a 19 yr old freshman at San Francisco State College. I saw Dr King on television, calling students to action, inviting us to come South and join in the voting rights struggle after the violent attack on voting rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Dozens of young people – some of whom would soon become my close friends and coworkers – were beaten, tear-gassed and chased off the bridge that day; many were severely injured. The year was 1965. What I saw on grainy black and white television became known as Bloody Sunday, commemorated each year on the first full weekend in March at the Selma Jubilee. My dear friend and SNCC leader Charles Bonner described the scene in Selma as he and other young demonstrators walked toward the armed city and county officers on the bridge that day:
“We were just teenagers marching toward a blue sea of police armed with guns, tear gas, billy clubs. Those on horseback had long leather whips. But we were at peace with our fear, our courage, our hope that as the song we were singing goes, A Change is Gonna Come.”
Mary Alice Robinson was a 16 yr old high school student from an active but very rural community in Wilcox County, Alabama. She vividly recalls Bloody Sunday, “My sister Edna and I ¾lots of us from Coy¾walked together. When they turned the dogs on us, and tear-gassed us, I rolled downhill into some bushes. I got briars in my hand and left them there for a long time, as a reminder of what they did to us.”
Before I was assigned to spend the summer working with these courageous grassroots freedom fighters in Wilcox County, I attended an intensive Orientation, “a civil rights boot camp” in Atlanta headed by Rev Hosea L Williams. He, Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and other leaders taught us 400 white and 200 Black students as much history, philosophy and voting rights as they could cram into a 5.5 day 14 hr a day training. Later that year in a speech at Hunter College, Dr. King recapped some of what he taught us: [Bear in mind that Negro was the term he used and a term of respect at that time] “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.” Repeat “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.”
King scholar Lewis V. Baldwin wrote that King’s further comments emphasizw that, “King concluded that racial injustice will never end as long as whites throughout the world minimize or ignore the problem.” Quoting excerpts from King again: “The cup of endurance has run over, and there is deep determination on the part of people of color to be freed from the shackles that they faced in the past. Now if the white world does not recognize this and adjust to what has to be, then we will end up with a kind of race war.”
Dr. King penned this warning in 1965, nearly 50 yrs ago. Today, many activists, commentators, even scholars predict that as a result of our failure to eliminate institutional racism, and due to a recent series of murders of unarmed Black men and the reaction of the white establishment to the ongoing demonstrations, that we are in a period that could be both as productive and tumultuous as the southern civil rights movement of the 1960’s. This civil unrest and indignations arises at the same time that a broad segment of the public is cynical about the electoral process, and discouraged about their own potential for economic advancement. We see decreased voter registration and participation numbers. What does it mean for us as a county, a state, a country, if we have large numbers of people who do not believe they are heard, that they are represented, enfranchised?
Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized one of the world’s greatest leaders, but he was a leader who always prodded us to do better, be better. Never rest on a single achievement, a voting site opened, a school integrated, even an unjust law changed – He encouraged us to push on and on, always pushing towards justice.
One of his more familiar quotes is a favorite of mine: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all – indirectly.” King’s familiar words offer both challenge and encouragement but we sometimes turn away from his less comforting quotes such as his insistence that we as a society, a whole society, cannot rest until we have eliminated racism from every aspect of our social and cultural institutions. Racism is as he said “that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.”
Too many civil rights martyrs, most of them Black, most of them unknown to this day, were injured and some died fighting for the right of African Americans to vote. This is our theme today, the importance of that right to vote for all of us. I want to emphasize as Dr. King did, that the right to vote was not the end of the struggle but that it was a large step towards full citizenship. A right that enables all Americans, most especially those who had been denied voting rights based on race, to participate fully in the affairs of their community, this country and our world.
Mrs. Rosetta Angion was mother of 16 children, including Mary Alice Robinson who I quoted earlier, but she still found time to work in the Wilcox County Alabama voting rights movement. Her home in rural Coy was a rest stop, a place we picked up and dropped off our voter lists, a place where people waited for rides to go into the courthouse in Camden to attempt to register to vote. She shared some of her memories of with me: Mrs. Angion recalled, “I’ll never forget sitting up watching TV, seeing Dr. King in other places marching, and whatever they tried to do they accomplished because he came there. I remember saying, ‘Lord I wish he would come to Wilcox County,’ and he did. I will never forget him coming here.
We were tear-gassed and beaten with sticks just because we wanted to vote. I remember marching in Camden, going to meetings, and then the great day when we stood in the rain to get registered, the day Dr. King was there. He stood on the jailhouse steps and spoke. Earlier, I found out that the only way you become a real citizen is to vote. After that I did everything I could to improve the lives of my community.”
Martin Luther King shared the Mrs. Angion’s conviction that you are not a full citizen if you cannot, do not vote, in his quote that is our theme for today: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me.” Dr. King is warning us that not voting is equivalent of enslavement: lack of ability to vote means that we do not possess ourselvesthat others make up our minds for us.
And as Mrs. Angion so movingly reminds us ” the only way you become a real citizen is to vote.”
For more by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com