In 1955, a teenage boy was murdered in Mississippi for the crime of looking at a white woman. At the time, murder of young black men in the south was so commonplace that, had Emmet Till not been from Chicago, the world would not have known of the event. In Chicago the murder was noticed primarily by the black press until Emmet Till’s mother made the courageous decision to open the boy’s casket. Clear evidence of Mississiippi brutality drew in the main stream media and the world learned the facts of life in the Southern USA.
In 1955, when I was seven years old, schools were still widely segregated, regardless of a Supreme Court decision to the contrary. Job discrimination was legal, separate toilets and water fountains were common. And to be clear, the primary difference between North and South was lynchings. The North did not have them, but police brutality and similar violations of human rights were not uncommon in any state if the victim was a black person. In enlightened communities like Lawrence, KS, which was named for a famous abolitionist, schools were segregated, the city plan advised against allowing any more black housing near the University, and pool halls were limited by ordinance to three for whites and one for blacks. Theaters were integrated in 1958 because Wilt Chamberlain insisted. Lawrence had no swimming pool until the 1970s because voters, fearing they would have to swim with blacks, refused to approve a bond issue.
We have come a long way. 1955 was the turning point. Emmet Till was murdered in the summer. The Montgomery bus boycott began in the fall, and Martin Luther King found his life’s work. It must have been scary as hell. His life was never safe from that moment on. His church was bombed, his house was bombed, his life was threatened, his family was not safe. He went in to the Birmingham Jail, a place notorious for killing black prisoners, and no one knew whether he would come out alive. People around him, from his closest advisors to his youngest acolytes, were subject to beating and murder. College kids and suburban housewives who answered his call ended up dead in the bayou, children were murdered in the basement of their church.
It was a long, brutal struggle which King did not live to see concluded… if it has been at all. Still we are a better nation for his leadership and the sacrifices he made, and he persuaded many others to make, on behalf of civil rights and human freedom.
When I make my list of the most important Americans of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King is at the top with Franklin Roosevelt. No one has set in motion more lasting change. Roosevelt’s work has slowly been undone by Wall Street and the big money people. He may be forgotten in 50 years. Martin Luther King will not be forgotten as long as we respect his memory on this day.