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One of the affinities this region feels for Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was a Southerner. He was Georgia-born and educated, a top Baptist seminarian who went on to guide congregations in Alabama and then Atlanta.
Oh, and the Southerner also was black. It was this characteristic that earned King admiration and enmity across the country. His skin color and other physical attributes that marked him as a person of African heritage separated him from numerous other high-profile public advocates of the era.
That and his courage. King cannot be remembered without acknowledging his courage. He bravely led campaigns against racial oppression in Alabama and elsewhere. The campaigns landed him in jail.
Bomb threats erupted. Physical and verbal harassment were bitter fruits of his work, a work that disturbed the status quo and upset people who desperately sought to maintain it.
King wasn’t the only brave black man or woman who challenged the social order 40 years ago, but he was among the prominent ones.
And among the most eloquent. Many brave, black leaders of that era looked to him to speak for them. His eloquence stirred the hearts of roomfuls of scared residents who gathered to plan civil disobedience.
It later stirred an entire nation who heard him speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington about a dream of future generations living unbound by color and archaic convention.
Black. Brave. Eloquent. Add to that list of attributes of Martin Luther King Jr. one more: principled. He operated within a framework of positive human convictions rooted in biblical teaching. Loving all mankind regardless of what they might do to him. Turning the other cheek. Desiring dignity for all.
King was not a saint, of course. His weaknesses were evident or whispered. His political judgment was not perfect, his relationship with his family flawed, his leadership hardly inerrant. He was only a man, albeit black, brave, eloquent and principled.
The community once more pauses to remember King, whose life ended prematurely in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a startling conclusion to a rather startling life, making King a martyr to a cause that ultimately was triumphant.
We again acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to our society and hope that brave, eloquent, principled Southern men and women of all ethnic and racial types will continue to step up and contribute to America’s greatness in future years.
Editor’s Note: This editorial was first published in The Wilson Times on Jan. 16, 2006.