He was born a King in 1929 and would live a life committed to equality and justice for all humankind. The dash between the starting line and the finishing line ended in 1968. Some would say that was a short dash, but oh boy, did he pack a lot of life in those 39 years.
The King ran his race well. He was, as they said about the baseball legend, LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, “Sneaky fast.”
He burst upon the scene on December 5, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama as an itinerant Baptist preacher, one hundred and 60 miles southwest of his childhood home on “Sweet” Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.
In moving to Montgomery after earning a doctoral degree in Religion and Philosophy at Boston College, King traded the Georgia segregationist Governor, Samuel Marvin Griffin for Alabama’s populist Governor, James “Big Jim” Folsom.
In the parlance of the 1950s, a populist sought to engage the common white working class in government and politics. To paraphase Folsom’s successor, George Wallace, “There is not a dime’s worth of difference between,” a populist and a segregationist, as each political philosophy ignored the plight of Blacks within a given political sub-division.
Probably because King was a newcomer to Montgomery and the city’s white political brokers could not control his purse strings, he was picked to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association’s bus boycott. You remember the story, how our dear sister, Rosa Parks refused to give up her sit in the Negro section of a city bus so that a white man could sit down.
King’s leadership during the Montgomery bus boycott caused his house to be bombed. He stood trial for trumped up charges, which he beat. Some political observers who recall the trial believe that a deal was struck between King’s father and Montgomery’s power elites; that King would leave Montgomery in exchange for a favorable verdict.
King returned home to Atlanta where he served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Back in Atlanta King never forced a major confrontation with the city’s white power structure like he had done in Montgomery and would do in other cities throughout the country.
However, he did “sit-in” with Spelman College students at the lunch counter at Rich’s Department Store. He attempted to dine at the Pickrick Restaurant owned by Lester Maddox, who would become the Governor of Georgia. Maddox threatened to beat King with an axle-handle if he stepped foot inside the Pickrick.
His advocacy of nonviolent direct action in supporting integration of public accommodations, voting rights, and housing discrimination put a bull’s eye on his back.
But before a sniper squeezed off a single round into his right jaw as he stood playfully outside of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the King would tell white America on August 28, 1963 about a dream that he had which envisioned people being judged by the “content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”
Fourteen months later, on October 14, 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was 35 years old and when he gave his acceptance speech at the University of Oslo in Norway two months later, no one in the audience suspected that in less than four years his light would belong to the ages.
He returned from Norway to Atlanta without fanfare. There was hardly any recognition that King had become the first person from Georgia to earn a Nobel Prize for Peace.
On April 3, 1968, King told Black Americans that he had been taken up to a great mountain where he behold the universal God and was shown the land promised by the God of the Old Testament.
The next day, King paid the ultimate price for his belief in justice and equality. Yet no public recognition was given for the sacrifice he had made. Instead of recognition, on April 9, 1968, Governor Lester Maddox caused Georgia State Troopers to surround the capitol to prevent anyone in King’s funeral dirge from using the rest room facilities in the state capitol.
For 37 years King would be the only Georgian to receive this prestigious prize. Yet still, no public recognition from the state of Georgia to acknowledge his contributions to humankind.
In 2002, Jimmy Carter, a former Governor of Georgia and former President of the USA was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Carter rightfully should have been awarded the Nobel Prize long before he was, but the committee did not bestow this honor upon him until one year after the state of Georgia removed the Stars and Bars, a symbol of Georgia’s Confederate past from its state flag. It was as if, the Nobel Prize Committee refused to acknowledge anyone from Georgia other than King, who preached racial reconciliation, as long as the state held onto symbols of the the old south.
Interestingly, the confederate flag was taken down by Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, who as a young state senator from West Cobb County, in the 1980s had opposed a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On August 22, 2011, the federal government honored Dr. King with “The Stone of Hope” at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial in the District of Columbia.
Three years later, the state of Georgia began efforts to honor Dr. King on the grounds of its capital.
August 28, 2017 was a grand day, with fine speeches from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, State Representative Calvin Smyre, Rev. Dr. Bernice King and Governor Nathan Deal. On this day, King’s supporters were protected by State Troopers who were armed and ready to prevent anyone from disrupting the proceedings.
Finally, an honor fit for a King, whose statue now faces the rising sun on the east side of the state capitol, overlooking the Atlanta streets where he played as a little boy, forging the character that would shape a state, a nation and a world.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org