by Peggy Freeman and Marlene Brand
Every year America celebrates Black History Month two weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. The highlight of King’s birthday encapsulates the prophetic “I Have a Dream” speech year after year. Yawning with boredom from the repetition of many celebratory events from the past, I discovered a fresh look in the screening of a documentary entitled, Citizen King.
Citizen King aired at the Ebony Repertory Theater on Saturday, January 19th at 7:00 p.m. and was hosted by founder and producer Wren T. Brown. Citizen King is a documentary about a young man, twenty six years old named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who spearheaded a Civil Rights Movement that lasted twelve years beginning in the 1960’s. True to his faith, he and other courageous leaders planned and led a movement that became significant to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voters Rights Acts.
“In order to understand Martin Luther King you must start with the fact that he was a minister. That is the key to who Martin Luther King Jr. was,” said William Gray-a family friend.
Reverend Dr. King was co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, civil rights activist and a prolific oratory who dedicated his life to “equality and justice.” Dr. King first undertook the challenge of leader when Rosa Park was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. The disparities of the times for black people ignited his passion for civil rights as they were oppressed, segregated and subjected to Ku Klux Klan hate lynching’s and Jim Crow laws. These common atrocities were designed to make blacks feel inferior to whites and uplift a form of covert slavery. Sickened by these rules of cruelty, Dr. King undertook a mission to create equality for the underserved masses by boycotting institutionalized segregation and unjust killings. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was monumental; it rocked the world and will forever change the face of America.
The film Citizen King showed the anatomy of a movement that set the tone for equality and Civil Rights for African Americans. Eye-witness accounts, diaries, historians, journalist and law enforcement officers rendered up close and personal accounts of the climate and agenda of Dr. King. It was like being there! The strategy of the movement likened to a Gross Anatomy class required for future physicians where students dissect bodies. The purpose is to learn all of its internal and external parts, and how each process works separately and together at the same time. Dissecting the political, social and ethical body of America allowed Dr. King and the SCLC time to plan a movement that would speak to the consciousness of America and it was brilliant!
“The decision to go into Birmingham was really the first time that Dr. King said, “’I’m not going to be responding to a crisis. I’m going to create a campaign to really try to test what we can do with non-violence before it’s too late.’” (Taylor Branch, Historian).
Demonstrations were planned that included high school students and although the focus was on non-violence means, the government’s reaction to the peaceful Marches appalled the people. Students marching for equality were sprayed with high pressure fire hoses that were meant for extinguishing a raging infernal of flames. Instead they dared to extinguish the hopes and dreams of the people vying for freedom at the nation’s footsteps. Scenes of German Sheppard police dogs unleashed upon the people were evidence that the United States was divided and as an ulcerated cancer…exposed of its ills. America was eating away at the flesh of humanity.
“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times” (CharlesDickens).
The death of an alleged ally, President Kennedy at the hands of a gunman sent the nation into a state of post traumatic stress. There seemed to be a thrombus [DVT, blood clot] deep in the veins of equality which needed a stat anticoagulant. The entire country experienced a critical emergency as shots rang out alongside a voice that cried “Let Freedom Ring” [Dr. King]. Many probably pondered that day, who in the government will fight for us now? Putting his finger on the pulse of America, Dr. King continued marching by non-violent means even to the point of no return. Amongst the tragedies were several victories including the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voters Rights Act in 1965 and in 1964 Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“This Nobel Peace Prize seemed to vindicate the controversial nature of his leadership. And he had been right to criticize violence at every level. He was right. He criticized hatred at every level. He was right. The Nobel Peace Prize said he was right, he was right. And so, we were overjoyed. Martin was glad and appreciative, but he didn’t shout for joy. He took it in stride” (Joseph Lowery).
It was quite evident that America still needed some extensive wound care. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employers from discriminating based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Spoken as a true patriot and following the Declaration of Independence, he stated:
“This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country”(President Lyndon Johnson)
During an interview shown in the film, Dr. King was accused of Communist affiliation. He answered his accusers by saying that being a Communist is against his fundamental Christian beliefs and that the government should be surprised that more black people had not aligned themselves with Communism seeing how America treats them (Orlando Bagwell).
This comment reminds me of how my own mother, Phyllis Smith said she was afraid to migrate to this country in the 1950’s (for vocational education). Although the United States had an open door policy, she felt the horrible treatment of blacks depicted in the foreign press was reprehensible. This caused my great-grandparents to send her to an aunt already living in the states thereby bypassing the South; she entered through Ellis Island, New York. Miss Phyllis, who is a woman of fair completion, went to an all white boarding school for nursing in Massachusetts. She experienced none of this violence or inequality, slept in the same dorm with whites, used the same community shower, drank from the same drinking fountains, fellowshipped in the same churches, and was in the same graduation photo. I could not help but think that it was acceptable only because of the color of her skin. The possibility of being seen as white or a different pedigree from other blacks enabled her to enter this door to success. She was allowed an interracial education in Massachusetts; yet throughout the South blacks were not allowed to integrate with whites.
In the film Citizen King, brilliant black historians, leaders, and friends of Dr. King gave eye-witness accounts of his moves and mindset. Some included Southern Christian Leadership Conference members Andrew Young, Victoria Gray Adams, Wyatt T. Walker, Dorothy Cotton, Vincent Harding, Clarence Jones (SCLC Attorney), C.T. Vivian, Walter Fauntroy, Joseph Lowery, James Cox, Stokley Carmichael and many others. Dr. King’s wife Loretta Scott King a women of sheer beauty, grace and courage, stood like a strong tower next to her husband’s side. Living a life paralleled to his destiny Dr. King understood he was called to fulfill a lasting purpose and that was his focus.
“There are “those who are called and those who are sent, they have a choice. They can say yea or nay. But those who are chosen do not have that luxury. And I know there were many times when Dr. King would have chosen to say no. But it was like, you know, he was driven” (Victoria Gray Adams, SCLC Board Member).
Like his example Jesus Christ, Reverend King fulfilled many notable acts and died in his 30s. Dr. King suffered persecutions from the status quo, governmental leaders and his own people. It is well known that Christ paid the ultimate price for humanity and so did Dr. King in his own way. He paid a grave price to become the heart that drove the circulatory system of equal rights. Dr. King was jailed during a peaceful march and while in jail he wrote his book entitled “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Eventually:
“The Movement took a huge toll on him. When they did the autopsy, they said he had the heart of a 60 year old he was 39” (Taylor Branch).
Citizen King gives its viewers a fresh, up close and personal look at the brilliance of Dr. King and the leaders who courageously lead the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. It reflects the mindset of the nation and how non-violence, organization and perseverance accomplished many feats in America. The film also highlighted the intricate aspects of the movement and how King understood the dynamics of the government and its people. The story also solemnly reflects the sacrifice and toll the movement took on Dr. King and his family. Ultimately his sacrifice opened many doors for African Americans, some of them include; Mae Carol Jemison, the first black female astronaut (super scientist); Alexa Canaday, the first black female neurosurgeon; James Meredith the first student admitted to a segregated university, and Barack H. Obama the first black President of the United States.. Even with all these firsts, America has yet to live out “the true meaning of its creed” (Dr. Martin Luther King, “I have a Dream”). However all the accolades given during his birthday and black history month are well noted after all, how many people do you know would die for a nation?
I pose the following questions. ‘Was Dr. King born just to take on this great work, suffer, and then die, as Jesus did?’ ‘If he was not assassinated, would he have died at an early age?’ Last but not least. ‘What will you do to make a difference in the lives of others?’
Peggy Freeman is Founder of Write Now Publishing Company, www.writenowpublishingco.com
Marlene Brand, RT (R)(M) is a Registered Technologist in Radiography and Mammography. She is a student at Mount St. Mary’s with a major in Spanish, emphasizing Interpretation and a minor is Healthcare Policy.