Martin Luther King Day is the national holiday set aside for the third Monday in January to honor the life and work of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, it falls on Jan. 20. Television and radio stations will re-broadcast his famous “I Have a Dream” speech he gave in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. It will be a day to reflect on how far racial equality has come and how far it has yet to go.
The racial inequality of slavery prior to the Civil War swelled particularly in the Deep South but also affected other states. New York, for example, first had slaves when the Dutch West India Company imported them in 1626 to New Amsterdam at the southern tip of Manhattan. After a 200-year history, New York abolished slavery, July 4, 1827.
The Missouri-Kansas Border War (1854-1861) directly foreshadowed the Civil War. Missouri entered the nation in 1821 as a slave state as part of the Missouri Compromise (1820). The state was fairly evenly divided between those who were in favor or opposed to slavery. Abolitionists helped slaves escape across the border to the Kansas territory where they’d be free. However, pro-slavery groups captured them and brought them back. This escalated into a violent, bloody pre-Civil War known as the Missouri-Kansas Border War or Bleeding Kansas.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), former slaves joined the Union Army. It was against the law for a slave to learn to read but those who did pursued education. Members of the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries had been taught to read by their commanding officer. In 1866, they returned to Missouri, where they were from, and founded Lincoln University in the state’s capital city of Jefferson City. This was the first historically black college west of the Mississippi after the Civil War. The founders stipulated that it should be “for the special benefit of freed African-Americans.”
At the same time accomplishments were being made in education and professional fields, the Jim Crow laws legally continued until 1965. These were enacted in 1876 to keep and enforce segregation. They were found mostly in the southern states but also existed in some western and northern states. Each state had their own set of laws. For some states, it was the issue of school segregation. Other states, especially in the Deep South, the lists included segregation, separate water fountains and restrooms based on race, separate sections in restaurants or entirely separate restaurants,fines or imprisonment for interracial couples and, in some places, African-Americans were not allowed to stay overnight in hotels.
Montgomery, Alabama had their own Jim Crow laws that combined having a designated seating area in city buses with giving bus drivers the right to assign seats. In 1955, Rosa Parks was sitting in a racially designated area but the driver asked her to stand so a white passenger could sit down. She refused and got arrested.
Dr.King referenced such “laws” in his speech that day in Washington. He spoke of bodies being exhausted from travel but “cannot gain lodging” in hotels and motels. Children should not have their dignity robbed with signs that say “For Whites Only.” He called for people of all races and religions to reflect on the true meaning of equality; to join hands and work together. King was a witness as President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made discrimination illegal.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was dedicated Aug. 28, 2011, during the term of Barack Obama, this nation’s first African-American president, and on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington. King’s 30-foot-tall statue is carved into one boulder called the Stone of Hope; the other boulder is the Mountain of Despair. Both contain inscriptions of memorable quotes. This memorial is part of the National Park Service.
Martin Luther King Day is not just a time to honor one African-American. It is a day set aside to reflect on Dr. King’s shared dream of respect and equality.
By: Cynthia Collins