Monday, January 19, 2009

A Birthday Present for Doctor King and All Americans

January 19th, 2009

My Dear America:

Today is the birthday of Doctor Martin Luther King. Tomorrow is the day when Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States.

The Nation's Capital is buzzing with warmth even though the temperatures are below freezing. You, America, are presently the hero of the world despite the fact that it was not all that long ago that you and President Bush seemed to be unwelcome everywhere. Something in the world has surely changed. Certainly there is no doubt about the fact that something in you, America, has surely changed.

America's Patriotic Founders were a very brave group. They stood up to English tyranny and we salute them for it. They did not, however, stand up for the black slaves in the south who were sold like cattle separating families and opressing human beings in a manner that indicated that slaves were not Americans but simply less than human beings who deserved the torture, killings and rapes they
received. It is hard for me to understand, America, just how anyone could or would try to justify the outrageous treatment of black men and women in America from our earliest days until now. I can understand how it could have drifted to the bottom of the priority list in the earliest days of the republic. What I can't understand is how the wretched excesses of slavery lasted as long as they did without other brave and just Americans trying to do something about it.

Still today some Americans tend to forgive the excesses of slavery. But I think that it may not be so easy to forgive America's legacy of slavery if you and your ancestors were victims of this criminal system. Tomorrow the day after
Martin Luther King's national holiday, Michelle Obama, The black Princeton and Harvard Educated Great, Great, Great Great Grandaughter of a slave will move into the White House in Washington, D.C. with her Columbia and Harvard Educated black husband, Barack Obama, following his innauguration as the President of The United States.

Yes, this event indicates once and for all that equality has finally come to America. There is tremendous and well deserved pride in America on Innauguration Eve. It has been, however, a hard and heavy walk to freedom for black Americans. Those brave individuals who stood in the way of slavery and segregation never seemed to come to good ends. Witness Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Lincoln won the Civil War but lost his life in order to end the legality of slavery.

Martin Luther King was a young baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama, who happened to be (just like Barack Obama) an eloquent and a moving speaker, when along came the arrest of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott. Largely due to the incredible leadership skills of Martin Luther King this Community Organizer was able to lead the boycotters to victory in Montgomery. Certainly Martin could have, at the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, gone back to his church and left the community organizing to someone else.

Martin realized,however, after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that in the era of television, segregation looked ugly and helped to move people in the direction of non violence and away from hatred. Segregation and racism needed to go. It was a tall order for a previously unknown Southern Baptist preacher. With many young preachers by his side Martin created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and took it upon himself to go or have his young preachers like Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, go wherever they were needed in America to help stamp out segregation, racism and inequality wherever they found it in the United States of America.

Much of the progress involving racial equality that we have witnessed in our country since the late fifties and early and mid sixties was due directly to Martin Luther King and his extreme dedication to the principles of non violence as an answer to inequality and violence.

Martin was an inspiration to many individuals who followed his lead into community organizing and other forms of helping their fellow men and women.
I will never forget the day that I had the great privilege of witnessing Martin Luther King working his magic in person. I was attending Temple University in Philadelphia in the summer of 1965. The program at Temple was called the Counselor Advisor University Education Program (CAUSE II). it was a program designed to train Counselors for placement in Youth Opportunity Centers Throughout the country. These were centers which hopefully would not only provide young people with counseling but with job training and job placement.

One day at Temple a young black man who was a native Philadelphian and was also in the CAUSE II program asked me if I was going to see Dr. King that day at a rally in a church just off the Temple Campus. Tensions were high in Philly that summer in 1965 and the controversial police chief and future Mayor, Frank Rizzo, seemed to be starting more racial problems than he was solving. I went with my friend to the church where Martin would be speaking. I truly expected that there would be many white and black students at the rally. It was only after I was inside the church that I realized that mine was the single white face at this rally. I must admit that it was frightening as some of the local and national figures at this rally spoke about violence as the way of dealing with their problems. Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was one who didn't sound too willing to continue to be nonviolent.

But then after all the others spoke this very short black man named Martin Luther King Jr. took his place at the podium and his voice dominated and filled the hall. He spoke slowly, clearly and softly at first. He made it clear from the outset that he had not come here to sell out his principles of nonviolence. As he spoke I almost felt as though his voice was so moving that he was able to lift me up. It was so powerful and he spoke with such eloquence. Then something happened that I will truly never forget. I don't recall everything that Dr. King was saying at the time but I remember Martin Luther King saying the words "our white brothers and sisters" and I remember him looking at me and smiling as he looked my way. I was stunned. I am still stunned just thinking about this magical moment in my life and what an incredible impression it has had and still has on my life.

So today on Martin Luther King's birthday I want to thank Dr. King for being here when we needed him. I want to thank him for all he has done to encourage social workers and community organizers alike, including that skinny black kid working on the south side of Chicago who was inspired by Martin Luther King to set his sights high.

Tomorrow that skinny kid who followed in Martin's footsteps around the south side of Chicago will take the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States.

You can't set your sights much higher than that.

Sincerely Yours

Jerry Gallagher

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