Monument fit for a King

First person of color honored on the Mall.

Posted: August 28, 2011

Like most people, I get too much mail from groups asking for donations. Most of it is discarded, but not the request I received to help fund the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, which was opened to the public last week.

My admiration of King began in the spring of 1963, when he came to Birmingham, Ala., to lead an economic boycott of segregated, white-owned stores.

I don't know what my parents thought when this controversial preacher came to town to stir things up. I was 9, and didn't pay much attention to grown folks' talk.

When I was older and began studying the civil rights movement, I learned that many among Birmingham's black leadership, especially ministers, thought King's confrontational style would only make matters worse.

But King had been invited by Mr. Confrontation himself, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whom, as a reporter, I interviewed decades later. You couldn't meet a more pleasant person, but Shuttlesworth didn't know the meaning of backing down.

He was beaten by whites, his house was bombed, his children's lives were threatened when he tried to enroll them in a white school. None of that deterred him from seeking integration.

Shuttlesworth called King, who eight years earlier had led the successful Montgomery bus boycott, because the Birmingham movement needed a spark. Blacks were only asking to use public bathrooms, try on clothes at department stores, and be hired as store clerks. But that was too much for most whites.

King responded to Shuttlesworth's call and organized marches that he hoped would grab the national media's attention and thus put pressure on Birmingham's business community to relent. The strategy might have failed had local officials simply allowed the marchers to demonstrate peaceably.

Instead, Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and his cops used nightsticks to beat the crowd, and police dogs to bite their legs, while firefighters trained highly pressurized water from their hoses at the helpless demonstrators' bodies.

School had not let out for the summer, but King called on young people to join the demonstrations. Many college and high school students were among those arrested for demonstrating. A 9-year-old classmate of mine was one of the youngest jailed for marching.

One day, my brother Don and I were accosted by two teenagers on bikes who told us we should boycott classes to show our support for civil rights. No way, we said. Our parents had drilled into us to put education above almost everything else.

Somehow, King's strategy worked without our participation. After several weeks, the business community did relent, and Connor's days as a city commissioner were numbered. Needless to say, that didn't sit too well with the Ku Klux Klan.

That summer is memorable for a number of reasons, among the unpleasant ones is my being called a "nigger" for the first time by a white person. Living in a completely segregated environment, I wasn't prepared for what, in retrospect, was a fairly innocuous incident.

I had walked to the A&P store about a mile away to get something for my mother. The traffic light changed, and I was about to step into the street, when a pickup whizzed by. Three white kids about my age in the back yelled something. All I remember is "nigger." I wondered why kids I didn't even know were angry at me.

It was only weeks later, Sept. 15, that the Klan expressed its anger by setting off a bomb at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. It killed three 14-year-old girls and 11-year-old Denise McNair, who had been a classmate of my brother Jeffery's.

King came back to Birmingham to deliver the eulogy at a memorial service for three of the children, including Denise. The family of the fourth child decided not to participate. Perhaps they wished King had never led the demonstrations that prompted the bombing.

King used the moment to exhort the fearful: "These children . . . the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity . . . have something to say to each of us in their death. . . . They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in the mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murderers."

It's amazing to me that anyone today who knows what King stood for could believe he would be satisfied with an America that may have elected a black president but that still produces white people who would kill a black man in Mississippi simply because he was a black man in Mississippi. That happened in June.

My father died four years after the Sixteenth Street Church bombing. I never got to talk to him about King. My mother lived to be 93, and on several occasions, she expressed appreciation for the civil rights movement, especially after King was assassinated in 1968.

Me? I am in no way ambiguous about a man I consider one of the greatest individuals this country has ever produced. And the 30-foot sculpture of King by Chinese artist Lei Yixin makes him the first person of color to have a memorial on the National Mall.

A fitting tribute would be for this nation to make sure he's not the last.

E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at Follow him @harjerjac

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