A Leader: A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, his fellow leaders and the Birmingham foot soldiers
Does America currently have a national leader fighting for a just American society like we had in the 1960s? A leader that, as Binnie Myles said, would make you describe him/her as “the only leader that I can honestly say that I ever followed….If that man said, ‘go to jail,’ I went to jail. And I was only 16 years at the time…..He stood out for justice and the right thing for all people, not just one.” A leader, who could inspire you even in your 60s to protest like Emma Young, who had been born in 1902: “I was so enthused….I just love him so because he was teaching us so much.” A leader whom you would call “a parent…as well as a leader” like Mary E. Streeter Perry, who even lost her job for her participation. In the 1960s, America had a number of such leaders, whose words generated reflection as well as action.
These quotes reflect a common thread that weaves through the hundreds of interviews with foot soldiers that have been conducted by BCRI in order to document the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, AL. In these interviews, foot soldiers describe mass meetings as occasions when thoughtful speakers translated the daily injustices African-Americans suffered into a discourse on rights and outlined a democratic means to obtain those rights. These speakers’ rhetoric inspired thousands of foot soldiers to fill Birmingham’s streets in protest, to face fire hoses and dogs, and to go to jail.
Foot soldiers cite an array of inspirational speakers, such as Reverend Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, James Bevel, Carlton Reese, and Reverend Abernathy. And as many would suspect, Dr. King features prominently in the interviews. The above quotes were specifically referencing Dr. King. As evidenced by the passage of some thirty years after the protests when these interviews were conducted, Dr. King’s leadership has had enduring impact. This most clearly come through in Mallory Coats interview. At the age of 12 years, Mallory Coats was selected from among his fellow students to read the Emancipation Proclamation at an annual event held on New Year’s Day and at which Dr. King was the guest speaker.
“I had heard of Dr. King and the boycott of ’55 so he was not a stranger to me. But, when I saw the policemen and all the crowds and all the people standing outside of the church, I just said to myself, ‘Dad, can we go home....?’ He said, ‘okay, you’re here, you’re going and you will do well. No turning around.’ So, what could I do? I got up, went on the stage and was sitting two persons from Dr. King and he gave his great address and I just sat there amazed. That’s the first really Black person of renowned stature I had ever been [in] the company of. I forgot about my speech. I’m thinking wouldn’t it be great to be someone like that, to stand before people and demand their attention, to be so articulate and all that. When it was my time on the program, I went through it and he [Dr. King] presented me this book….It’s a Negro history book and Langston Hughes was the writer of this book and his autograph is in it. I made a promise to myself about a week after this to use this book to encourage black kids…to read. And, so what I would do, especially when I was teaching…I would tell them [the black male students] the story of this book. I said, “You know, I got a chance to meet one of the world’s greatest men and shake [his] hand.” And they would say, “Who?” I said, “Dr. Martin Luther King and I was just in the 6th grade. And, I got that experience because I could read….You can see it’s old and has been used, but I made a promise to myself a long time ago that when it was time, I would use this book. One of the reasons I believe I got a masters in reading was because I understood as a black male, it is so important that black males learn to read adequately…..This book has been something that has not lost its glamour or thrust with me at all. I’ve gotten many awards, but this is the most precious thing I’ve ever received because of the spirit in which it was given and in the time that it was given….I was in the midst of the struggle and I found it to be encouraging.”
Like these foot soldiers many Americans can still be awed by Dr. King’s eloquence. His words can still stir our desires for a more just society. The words of the foot soldiers, in addition to honoring Dr. King, are also inspiration. These few foot soldiers are representative of thousands whose sacrifices substantially changed a culture of silence and conformity. As we commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and the army of foot soldiers who made up the Civil Rights Movement, we may also wish to reflect in their honor on what more is needed to fully “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”**
*Starting in 1994 the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute began interviewing the foot soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement as part of its Oral History Project. Interviewees provide first hand insights on the Movement including becoming conscious of civil rights and equality, the organization and the philosophy behind the Movement, and personal reflections of participation some 30 years later.
** King, M. L., “I Have a Dream”, March on Washington, Washington, D.C., 1963