Two days ago on April 4th 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visionary leader and activist Dr. King was one of the most impactful voices in the Civil Rights Movement and his speeches and the marches he helped organize are recorded both in history books and the minds of people who were there. In order to honor his work and legacy, here is a story from the book IN PEACE AND FREEDOM: MY JOURNEY IN SELMA by Bernard LaFayette Jr. and Kathryn Lee Johnson where Bernard LaFayette Jr. recalls a march he participated in that was led by Dr. King.
I stood there, amazed that we were here, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the capitol, in the middle of the bible belt, the Cradle of the Confederacy. Dr. King looked down the street, and in his sight was the first church that he pastored, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in the city where he led his first movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And now, after a decade of arrests, attacks, and even having his home bombed right here in Montgomery, he delivered his message from the seat of government to an audience of thousands. I noticed that he put his finger in his ear, which is a traditional sign that a Baptist preacher is ready to whoop. Whooping is a form of preaching, mainly practiced by black preachers. There is an intonation in the minister’s voice with a musical, rhythmic repetition that connects with the spirit and emotions of the congregation. They respond in oral affirmations and chant, leading to a crescendo and, finally, squalls. People often leap to their feet, shouting, fired up, and emotional.
However, Dr. King maintained his composure and presented his poignant and poetic message, not just to a Baptist church audience but to an entire world, as the media transmitted his words internationally. Dr. King delivered one of the most powerful speeches of his life, often referred to as the “How Long? Not Long” speech. His eloquent words filled the air and our hearts: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that day will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.” He had a remarkable ability to communicate effectively not only with scholars in ivory towers but also with the common people in the pews on Sunday morning, and with each person in the street that day. He had the voice, but never relied on his homiletic gifts. He talked as a statesman speaking to his government and its people. His messages were always inspiring, informative, and motivating. So it was on this historic occasion. At the conclusion of the march and Dr. King’s speech there was a feeling that the goal of the Voting Rights Movement was within reach. We felt with all confidence in our minds, our hearts, and our feet that soon we would all be marching to the voting booths.