SCLC Leadership Reflects on Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Civil Rights Leader Would Be 93 Years Old This Year
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the pre-eminent civil rights advocate of the 20th century, was gunned down by an assassin 39 years into his extraordinary life. This January 15, 2022, Dr. King would have been 93 years old. This year, the two men charged with pursuing King’s mission for justice and economic parity for all, but primarily, Black Americans paused to reflect on the life and times of the “Dreamer.”
Dr. Bernard LaFayette, the long-time Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Dr. Charles Steele, Jr., the President and Chief Executive Officer, who has served longer than any other person employed in this capacity by the organization, paid homage to the chief architect of civil rights advancements in the last century.
Dr. LaFayette has two fond memories of Dr. King. The first memory occurred on Dr. King’s 39th and last birthday, January 15, 1968.
“Dr. King worked all the time. He did not pay much attention to birthdays or holidays; every day was a workday for us. On his birthday in 1968, King was conducting an SCLC strategy session at Ebenezer Baptist Church. We were making plans for the Poor People’s Campaign,” said LaFayette, who was SCLC’s National Program Administrator at the time.
“We had gotten a cake for him, so at the end of the meeting, we gathered around the cake to sing happy birthday to Dr. King. An old deacon of the church was there to lock up the church when we left. We asked the deacon to lead us in singing happy birthday to Dr. King,” LaFayette recalled.
“But the deacon didn’t just sing happy birthday like we were accustomed to singing it. The deacon did what we call ‘raise a hymn in the church.’ The deacon used the long meter form, and we all joined in and followed his long meter rendition of happy birthday. Dr. King left that meeting joyful with a smile on his face,” LaFayette remembered.
Dr. LaFayette’s second fond memory occurred on April 3, 1968.
“About three months after his birthday, we were at the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue discussing the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King received a telephone call from “Jim” [James] Lawson, who asked him to lead a march in Memphis on behalf of sanitation workers. Dr. King was reluctant to accept Lawson’s invitation because we were getting closer to the start of the Poor People’s Campaign, and there was much work left to be done in preparation for this campaign. King wanted to put a face on poverty in America,” LaFayette said.
“After the first Memphis march ended in a riot, Dr. King decided he would go back to Memphis and prove he could conduct a peaceful march. At that time, we were working on writing a press release that we planned to publish in Washington announcing the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King asked me to meet him in Memphis to finalize this media advisory. We spent much of the evening of April 3, 1968, in Martin’s room working on the media statement. He was in his pajamas. It was raining heavily outside.
When Rev. Abernathy [Ralph David] called and told Dr. King that he should come and address the crowd, he initially protested but decided to dress and go to Mason Temple, where he gave the I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech. He left me at the motel to continue working on the speech. When Dr. King came back to his motel room from Mason Temple, I had not seen him so excited, so triumphant. It was like he knew he had spoken a prophetic word that had far more meaning than he could realize in the moments immediately following the speech,” LaFayette said.
Dr. Steele paused to reflect on the enormous responsibility and opportunity that has been thrust upon him because he sits in Dr. King’s seat at the helm of King’s organization.
“We still ain’t free,” Steele bellowed. “If Dr. King were alive today, he would focus on the fact that you never rest on your laurels. We must continue to educate the people. We have people in leadership who think that the mission had been accomplished because we elected a Black President. Dr. King did not care anything about the color of a President. He understood that the President is President of all the people and that we as a people have to continue to fight for what we want,” Steele stated.
“There are people in leadership roles who did not warn the people about what was coming down the pike. This assault on voting rights didn’t just start. It started ten years ago with Shelby v. Holder. We are back to ground zero fighting ‘states rights’ all over again,” Steele argued.
“If Dr. King were alive today, he would be afraid for the plight of Black people and America because, without racial healing, we as a people will never be free. And you can’t have racial healing until America pays reparations to Black people for the wealth this country amassed on the back of free Black labor,” Steele said.
“In 1963, Dr. King led a march on Washington where he told the government that Black people had come to collect on the promissory note Lincoln pledged to Black people, but that note came back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ Our mission today is to secure voting rights and to receive economic parity. We are coming for our money. It’s owed to us, and we are going to get it,” Steele prophesied.
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is the author of a book on Negro Leagues Baseball, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball. He writes feature stories for Black College Nines. Com. Harvey is a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, HBCU and PRO Sports Media Association, and the Legends Committee for the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. Harvey is an engaging speaker. Contact Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org.