Reflections on the Legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Published January 15, 2003

Delivered to a luncheon audience organized by
Northwestern University and the
Chicago Campus Dream Committee

Northwestern University School of Law
Chicago, Illinois

January 15, 2003

click here to download PDF version

Good morning. Thank you for that kind introduction. I am delighted to join Northwestern’s family, friends, and guests this morning for the commemoration of the 74th birthday of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to thank Margaret for the invitation.

It’s a particular honor and pleasure to address you on my own reflections on the legacy of Dr. King. I heard a lawyer joke once that said, “if five people witness an accident there would be five different versions.” I was living in Montgomery part of the time during the bus boycott of 1955, and I have heard and read many different versions about how the Montgomery bus boycott started.

Growing Up in the South

In fact, some of you might have heard that the reason Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to get up was that her feet were tired and she wouldn’t move. Mrs. Parks was giving a speech in Chicago two years ago, and she made it very clear that she was tired … but it had nothing to do with her feet. Now you already know one thing I won’t say.

Many of the whites in Montgomery thought the NAACP. had started the bus boycott in order to have a legal test case, because they knew Mrs. Parks had been the past secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. While the boycott did become a legal test case, it was not started by the NAACP, and Mrs. Parks was not a “plant” as the media and the mayor’s office were suggesting. A local labor leader and past president of the NAACP was deeply involved in the boycott as a community activist.

In my mind, reflecting on the story of the Montgomery bus boycott and the life of Dr. King is a bit of the early years of Lee Walker growing up in the deep south during legal segregation just a short 40-odd years ago. My small participation in the boycott was my beginning in the civil rights movement. Later, I became actively involved in the 1960s movement in the community and in the corporate world, in Alabama, New York City, Illinois, and South Africa. I hope to continue my efforts in social action for many years to come.

I grew up living between Troy and Montgomery; a distance of 38 miles. Troy was a small city and Montgomery was much larger. For this talk I am focusing on Montgomery, one of the oldest cities in America, known as “the cradle of the confederacy.” It is the city where Jefferson Davis took his oath of office as President of the Confederate States. It was in Montgomery where the first confederate flag was made. It is the city that introduced the 26-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the nation and the “world stage.”

My [Very Small] Role in the Boycott

Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia to an influential and well-educated middle-class family. He started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta and was living in Atlanta when he was killed. Still, most folks think of Montgomery or Birmingham when his name is mentioned.

I walked pass Dr. King’s house twice a day on my way to and from Alabama State University for two years, a three mile walk from where I lived. Dr. King was often seen walking across the campus, perhaps to some meeting regarding the bus boycott. The first-year English professor was secretary of the bus boycott committee, which was known as the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Committee).

“The committee once needed a group of boys to stand in shifts guarding Dr. King’s house after the first bombing, and I signed up for that task.”

As you know, the boycott started in December 1955 and ended 382 days later in 1956. I played no leadership role in the boycott. I was just a follower who went to meetings to know what was happening. The committee once needed a group of boys to stand in shifts guarding Dr. King’s house after the first bombing, and I signed up for that task.

The boycott was not a difficult time for me personally. Most of us didn’t have cars, and during the time I spent in Troy there were no city buses at all. So walking instead of riding where you wanted to go presented no problem to most of us students, both high school and college.

Dr. King’s Rise After the Boycott

While the actual boycott was over in 1956, racial tensions and violence were worse in the years after the boycott. In 1956 and 1957, after the buses were integrated, the KKK grew, and homes and churches were being bombed.

While the bus boycott was the biggest news in town for the 50,000 blacks of Montgomery for more than a year, the citizens had not yet crowned Dr. King the leader and celebrity he later became. One reason may have been that when you are going through a tough struggle day after day, you just say a prayer and follow instructions. Those instructions were repeated at individual churches every Sunday morning, so not all of the people got a chance to see Dr. King at the weekly boycott committee meetings.

“Staying off the city buses–where blacks were 75 percent of the daily riders–became a symbol, in my view, of ‘I won’t take injustice anymore. You can have your buses all to yourselves.'”

Staying off the city buses–where blacks were 75 percent of the daily riders–became a symbol, in my view, of “I won’t take injustice anymore. You can have your buses all to yourselves.” The irony here is that most of the whites stopped riding the buses also while the white wives were driving their black housekeepers and cooks between work and home.

As the boycott continued, the bus line was losing money and so was the city, since it received 20 percent of the bus line’s weekly profit. The bus drivers who lost their jobs became angry with the drivers who had put blacks off their buses.

Blacks of all classes and walks of life came together and worked as a strong unit under Dr. King’s leadership, and they were proud to do so. All of this was due to Dr. King’s non-violent leadership and relationship with the people. Everyone believed in him and there were some very tough times. No leader had had such support from the people since the days of Booker T. Washington.

Pre-Boycott Race Relations in the South

Before proceeding further with my version of the story, I would like to draw a mental picture for you, so you can see how blacks were thinking in 1955, just months before the Montgomery bus boycott, 48 years ago.

My purpose for taking you back almost 50 years for a few minutes is in no way to develop white guilt about the Old South, because there is a New South and I am a proud Southerner, even though I have lived in New York City and Chicagoland longer. I’m proud in spite of Senator Lott’s comments or those made by any other individual who wants to live in the race days of the Old South.

Just before the bus boycott, the racial mood among blacks in Montgomery had reached a level where people knew something had to be done regarding race relations in general, and dealing with the Montgomery bus line in particular. The big question among the leadership was who would step forth and speak out. The Emmett Till killing had just happened next door in Mississippi. It was in the national news, and it created hate and fear.

The same situation had just happened in Montgomery, where a young black boy was accused of whistling at a white woman, put in jail, and then killed while in jail. At the trial the woman said she lied and was sorry … but the judge told her she was lying in court and had told the truth the first time. A jury found no one guilty for the young man’s death.

During that same time, a number of black women and students had been put off the city buses because they refused to give their seat when a white person was standing. One of the cases involved a 12-year-old girl. The judge had promised black leadership he would not put the girl in jail and give her a criminal record, but he did so anyway.

Rosa Parks’ Role

Then a college woman named Rosa Parks, who worked at the leading department store downtown, was taken off the bus and jailed.

Mrs. Parks had seen many other black men, women, and children put off the buses to make room for white passengers. Mrs. Parks knew it was city law, but she had made up her mind if it ever happened to her she would not move.

On Thursday, December 1, 1955 at about 5:00 p.m. it happened. The driver wanted a couple of seats for whites and called back for some blacks to move. Three blacks moved immediately. Mrs. Parks was asked to move and she quietly refused and was arrested by the police.

Mrs. Parks was the right person at the time, just as Jackie Robinson was the right person for baseball. “Her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted,” and she was well-educated and well-respected within the black community.

She had no idea what would happen next or if she would be able to get bail. Even before she was allowed to make a telephone call, the word had spread over town by the people on the bus. Calls were made to the usual community leaders, but they were not home yet or in their office.

Meanwhile, a college professor who had been put off the bus said “something had to be done,” and she called several ladies in a club where she was the president. They talked of having a one-day boycott on Monday morning. Since it was Thursday, that gave them time to plan. When the local labor leader was finally reached that night, he agreed on a one-day boycott and was able to call on a white lawyer friend of his to make bail for Mrs. Parks.

But a big question about the boycott remained: Who would step up and lead such an event? Your job, life, and family would be at risk. Another right person, in the right place at the time, was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Dr. King, armed with a Ph.D. from Boston University, had arrived in Montgomery just a year earlier in 1954, at the age of 26 to pastor the influential Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The location of Dexter Baptist made it the most prominent black church in the city, and whoever the minister was could play a unique role in the boycott. The church was downtown, just across the street from the State Capitol. Some of the country’s best-trained black ministers had preached there. Its membership included many influential and professional people from Alabama State University, as well as some folks from the famous nearby private Tuskegee University.

While Dr. King had been in Montgomery only a short time and was still relatively unknown, he was not beholden to the white power structure of the city. The labor leader and another pastor both agreed the city needed new leadership, and politically King would be the best one to be in charge of the boycott. If he failed, the black city leadership would still be ready to keep things quiet.

Dr. King accepted the one-day responsibility. Under his leadership, some 50,000 people maintained a near-perfect unity and discipline … not only for a day, but for 382 days! The boycott ended in a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision, declaring Alabama’s state and local laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional, upholding an earlier ruling of a three-judge U.S. District Court panel.

Dr. King’s Influence

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had morally influenced the people of Montgomery, the nation, and the world. He had led the first successful large-scale, non-violent movement of civil disobedience in the United States, an idea expounded by Thoreau.

In his first book about the boycott, Strive Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote that when he received the telephone call telling he had been elected president of a new organization, MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association), to be in charge of the boycott, and asked if he would accept, and he had less than 15 minutes to decide. He had to travel across town to the church, where 3,000 to 4,000 people were waiting–including television crews. What would he say? It would be his first speech to the people of Montgomery, both black and white.

I guess when you are in doubt in the South, use the words of Booker T.

“King told the crowd, ‘in spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted we must not become bitter, and end up by hating our white brothers.’ As Booker T. Washington said, ‘Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.’ And the audience responded enthusiastically.”

King told the crowd, “in spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted we must not become bitter, and end up by hating our white brothers.” As Booker T. Washington said, “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.” And the audience responded enthusiastically.

Dr. King elevated the issue of equality into a moral crusade and appealed to the conscience of Montgomery’s white citizens and the nation. His successful peaceful protests–using used non-violent tactics even when met with violent opposition–have become a legacy after his death, and his name remains a symbol of the modern civil rights movement.

Dr. King’s birthday is now celebrated as a national holiday in America, a historic moment acknowledged around the world.

My thoughts on Dr. King are based on memory and talks with members of my family and friends who are still living in Montgomery. I also read two books several times. I would recommend them both to you.

The first, The Women Behind The Montgomery Bus Boycott, was written by my freshman year English professor at Alabama State, who was also the secretary of the boycott committee and president of the black professional women of Montgomery. The second book is Dr. King’s Stride Toward Freedom. I also read Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s unpublished thesis on the boycott, which he submitted to Atlanta University.

I was interviewed by Dr. David Garrow, associate professor of political science of the City College of New York, here in Chicago during 1986. Dr. Garrow was awarded the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Dr. King, Bearing the Cross. I was honored to have my name listed among others in his book under “friends.”

Dr. King’s Relevance Today

Let me close with a thought or two on the relevance of Dr. King’s dream today.

With our present climate of race relations in the country, those of you who are under the age of 40—-and that’s most of you here–may have a little difficulty understanding that just 40 years ago the country’s racial landscape was dramatically different. I did not read that in a black studies class: I lived through that second-class citizenship era that the notorious case of Plessy v. Ferguson created in 1896, and was not reversed until May 17, 1954 in Brown v. the Board of Education, which was only one part of its reach. The Montgomery bus boycott case ended second-class citizenship in transportation in 1956, and more laws were updated during the 1960s.

The challenge to you today in terms of Dr. King’s dream is that we still have too many loyal Americans segregated in our hearts and in our thinking about one another. Unfortunately, the law can’t make you love yourself in order to love others. The dream today is to overcome racism not only in Alabama and Georgia, but also all over the country.

“Our charge is to carry out his dream, not just through tolerance … and respecting the rights and opinions of others, but through real understanding of other cultures.”

Not only is it a moral issue, but it is an issue that is leading to the disintegration of this great nation, and indeed, because of globalization, the world. Dr. King, in his famous speech during the march on Washington, envisioned a world where we can live together, where children of every race and color can play together.

Our charge is to carry out his dream, not just through tolerance–which is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as the ability to endure especially with forbearance–and respecting the rights and opinions of others, but through real understanding of other cultures. Only then can the legacy of Dr. King be realized.

Lee H. Walker is director of The New Coalition at The Heartland Institute, and also serves as a member of The Heartland Institute’s Board of Directors. He is a member of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education, a commissioner with the Midwestern (10 States) Higher Education Commission, and National President of the National Guardsmen. He also writes a monthly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.