As Black History Month continues, we honor several of the souls who have carried on the legacy of Africans in America. This writer had the good fortune to attend a gala hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California (SCLC).
Tavis Smiley was the keynote at the SCLC event and shared insights on King and how the preacher from Atlanta knew full well that his days were numbered.
Up until 1967, King was accepted by Blacks as the Civil Rights Movement’s leader and tolerated by most Whites in the nation as he carried on marches and speeches. King, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had been considered by many as the greatest living American.
But in one speech he made that year, he declared his protest against the Vietnam war and that set a lot of people on edge.
“He said to America ‘You are the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Y’all missed that, this is a Negro, in 1967, telling America,” Smiley told the audience. “What happened the next day when he woke up? Every major media outlet in this country tore him a new one.”
The White media believed he had “outlived his usefulness.”
“It’s as if the cosmos had shifted that deal overnight,” Smiley said, noting that even some of the Black press turned against King. “Because he dared to tell America the truth.”
During his final year of life, King was “persona non grata” according to Smiley. Politicians would not take his phone calls; invitations to speak were rescinded; even other Black leaders disassociated themselves. He had been warned not to give that speech.
Smiley insists that King knew, from then on, that there was “a bullet chasing him.”
And now he was alone. He was stressed. Under pressure. Today, folks would have seen he was in need of depression therapy, but back then, such talk would have certainly ended his career.
“But he never backed up, he never backed down,” Smiley said, noting King continued to make speeches about the country’s racism, poverty and militarism. “He woke up every day and continued to work and witness and tell America the truth and challenge America.”
Smiley then talked about how King was working to democratize America. The radio show host insists that America is an experiment in democracy, but it has not yet become a democracy.
“When Rosa Parks sat down, so we could stand up, she was democratizing America,” Smiley said. “When Fredrick Douglas helped Abraham Lincoln get on the right side of the slavery question, he was democratizing America. When Nat Turner organized that revolt, he was democratizing America. When they marched to pass the Civil Rights Act, they were democratizing America.”
Those who protest, pass amendments, fight in wars or sign propositions are helping to democratize America, the speaker insisted.
“Every time Blacks show up, we move America just a little closer to being a true democracy,” he said.
“At our best, that’s what we do,” Smiley added. “Don’t you ever believe that Martin was simply a dreamer, you’ve got your d’s confused. He was not just a dreamer. He was a democratizer.”
Smiley added that during this divisive time in history, Black Americans are being called on once again to help democratize America. Not to consider if actions are safe or popular, but to act because it is right.
“The future of our democracy is inextricably linked to how seriously we take the legacy of Martin King,” he said, noting that the legacy includes justice for all, service to others and love. “That we’re all equally worthy — just because.”