On Monday, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. The celebration comes nearly 45 years after the civil rights leader was gunned down on a balcony outside his Memphis hotel room. King was born Jan. 15, hence the January observance. King made so many famous speeches, urging people to cry out for equal rights among people of different races.
This Christmas, I was given a copy of David McCullough’s biography of President Harry S. Truman and, as I’ve learned, King was not the first to speak the message of civil rights on the National Mall in Washington D. C. Truman, in 1947, started calling for better treatment of black people by whites. It was, as you might imagine, a politically sensitive issue.
Truman’s critics claimed his support for improved race relations was little more than a campaign ploy to win the black vote in the 1948 election. That was the first presidential campaign for Truman, who, three years earlier, had ascended to the nation’s top office following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But Truman was much more of an everyman than most presidents. He wasn’t an Ivy-league educated lawyer, or the patrician son of a wealthy family. He grew up on a farm, had financial setbacks through much of his adult life and didn’t really ascend to prominence until he was in his 50’s.
He had grown up around people of both races and, though he didn’t necessarily count black people among his closest friends, he saw them as people just trying to get by, just like he was.
In his speech on the mall, Truman also had his World War I experience in mind, remembering how black troops were treated differently than white troops.
His admonition to Congress to get rid of punitive measures like poll taxes and improve education for students of both races, didn’t sit well, especially with southern Democrats and farmers, two decidedly Democratic constituencies in the day.
Truman’s audience was much smaller than the crowds that massed in front of the Lincoln Memorial some 16 years later to hear King speak.
And, now, in 2014, we are even further removed from King’s remarkable era than King and Truman were from each other. It’s been more than 50 years since King made his most famous speech. Much has changed. That’s good.
Somehow, though, there remains sort of a festering feeling, just below the surface, that the two races are still not on equal footing.
When I attend the MLK celebration tomorrow at Riley Hill Baptist Church, I will be in the minority. There may be a handful of white people there besides me. Most of the crowd will be black. That won’t be intentional, but that’s how it will be if history serves as any indicator. It’s not how it ought to be. We celebrate much about the feisty independent attitude of this country. We celebrate revolutionary leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We give thanks for military service members who sacrifice for the good of the nation.
But our country is also capable of fixing its own problems when it wants to. King went a long way in that direction in the 1960s and with the help of President Lyndon B. Johnson, another southern Democrat, he managed to make great big strides in that direction. That effort will be celebrated tomorrow at places like Riley Hill Baptist Church and Zebulon Baptist Church. It’s worth everyone’s time to celebrate that can-do attitude and the benefits we’ve all realized from those efforts.
Truman, I think, would have approved.