Bruce Jackson: The Drum Major

Current Affairs / Religion

Every now and then a friend sends me an essay that I am given permission to share here. Bruce Jackson is a member of the Prayer Book class I teach at the Cathedral. He is a church administrator, a well known lawyer, a civil-rights activist and former NFL football player. He writes today of the work of Dr. King:

History consists of significant events which shape the future, catapulted by outstanding leaders who influence our lives and destiny. One Monday a year, America commemorates the life of just such an outstanding leader – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is a testament to his greatness that just about every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is also a testament to how misunderstood is his life and achievements that most of them are situated in African-American parts of those cities. Forty-two years after he was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, he is still mostly regarded as a “black” leader of a movement for “black equality and civil rights”.

This view is partially accurate, but, oh so restrictive. While he was heroic in carrying the struggle to free people of color from the terrible yoke of dejure and defacto daily segregation and second-class citizenship, white Americans just might have benefitted the most from his heroism. He was the driving force in liberating them from the monstrous weight of supporting and justifying the burden of three centuries of hypocrisy on the subjects of “race” and “democracy”.

But for Dr. King and his leadership of the movement for civil AND human rights, America could not, in the last half of the twentieth century, claim to be a moral beacon for the “free world” without inviting justifiable smirks of disdain, disbelief, and outright laughter on the global stage. Had this beautifully constructed and led movement of marches and moral persuasion failed, much of this nation would have remained indistinguishable from apartheid South Africa and the former Rhodesia. Could Ronald Reagan have so convincingly pushed against the continuance of the “Iron Curtain” while an equally oppressive Cotton Curtain remained permanently draped across vast swatches of the U.S.? (Ironically, Reagan, in the 1960’s, was vehemently opposed to King’s movement – Reagan actually appeared before Congress and testified against the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was a direct product of the movement).

In 1955, when King first appeared on the national radar screen, what we now, globally, call human rights violations were both law and accepted custom, as well as tradition, in much of America. Before King led a moral and legal revolution here, a dignified working woman like Rosa Parks could be jailed and fined for not giving up her bus seat so a white man could sit down. A six-year old African-American child like Ruby Bridges could be attacked and spit upon by a white mob in New Orleans simply because she wanted to attend the same local school as did the children of her white neighbors. A fourteen-year old African-American boy like Emmett Till could be hunted down and brutally murdered by a thuggish gang because he “allegedly” whistled at a white woman.

Even university educated folks of color were routinely, and often crudely, denied that fundamental American right to vote or sit on juries, and this was not limited to the regional South. In much of the South African-Americans could not eat at many restaurants, stay in motels, drink from water fountains, or use “whites only” rest rooms.

They could be required to get off a sidewalk and walk in the street if a Caucasian person happened to walk by. In almost all of America, African-Americans could not buy or rent homes or apartments wherever they chose.

King’s movement swept practically all of that away. (Although the 2000 presidential election debacle, wherein thousands of votes from predominantly African-American districts in Florida were not counted, remind us that vigilance is still required where the rights of minority citizens is concerned.) The movement’s victory was so thorough that, although those aforementioned outrages took place during the living memory of the baby boomers, they are often treated like ancient history.

The cultural, social and legal revolution was the product of two centuries of agitation by thousands upon thousands of bold, visionary folks, both white and African-American. But King was the triumphant culmination. From 1955 to 1968, he was able to expose, expound and extricate America from centuries of living massive lies and perpetrating grievous human rights ills upon its own citizens, their crime being merely that of being born non-white. It is not possible to conceive of the movement succeeding without his leadership. It is impossible to think of America as we know it today, had this great proponent of peace and justice not taken Rosa Park’s cause upon his shoulders in 1955.

Rev. Dr. King provided America with a road map to, as he said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, “…transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”. He also provided us with a candle and light for the journey. We are still traversing that road, slowly but surely, with his candle leading the way. On this Monday in 2010, as we honor him with a holiday, please reflect how we can carry his “dream” forward – how we can work together to fight AGAINST poverty, homelessness, racism, and social despair – and FOR individual rights, liberties, and legal/social respect for the dignity of all, no matter their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

Rev. Dr. King asked that, at his funeral, he be referred to as a “drum major for justice”. Thank you Rev. Dr. King for being the Drum Major who led us to greater heights of humanity through love, justice and peace. Your dream lives on in so many of us……….

(Recommended read : “Let The Trumpet Sound – The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Stephen B. Oates [1985] )

In Brotherhood,
Bruce A. Jackson

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...