Informed in 1960 that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Senior would be voting for the Protestant Richard Nixon, Sen. Jack Kennedy smiled and said: “We all have fathers.” It was typical of his wit. Kennedy’s own father was a notorious anti-Semite and appeaser. Young Jack would never repudiate Old Joe, or fail to cash Joe’s hefty checks. Kennedy would win that election and go on to present Congress with the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in a century.
We celebrate this month the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior. He kept his eyes on the prize: civil rights for millions of black Americans suffering under unjust Jim Crow laws.
Racial segregation was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in one of the worst rulings in history, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In that case that the former Kentucky slave owner, Justice John Marshall Harlan, wrote this powerful dissent:
The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.…
…We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.
The wrong of that day of Plessy lasted into the 1960s. Justice Harlan, a Republican appointee, ringingly proclaimed that the Constitution must be “color-blind.” Let’s honor his memory, too.
Dr. King made his point in biblical cadences. He cried out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Following the peaceful conclusion of that great March on Washington in August 1963, President Kennedy invited Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights movement to a meeting in the Oval Office.
It was not Dr. King’s first time there. President Eisenhower had made a point of inviting Dr. King to meet with him to discuss civil rights when King emerged as the leader of the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott in 1957. Dr. King and his followers refused to ride in the back of the buses that their tax dollars supported.
Ike had used his appointive powers to name Supreme Court justices who would correct the injustice of Plessy. Barely a year into Eisenhower’s first term, the high court unanimously ruled against segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). And Republican Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, when the Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus defied federal court orders to de-segregate that city’s schools.
Eisenhower was criticized endlessly by liberal elites for his emphasis on massive federal highway construction and for encouraging American prosperity. “A vast wasteland,” they dubbed TV in what all now see as its golden age. Still, it was over Ike’s new Interstate highways that the Freedom Riders of the early sixties blazed a trail to end segregation. And those TV news cameras let all Americans see, for the first time, the police dogs and fire hoses necessary to maintain segregation. Political reform followed quickly on the heels of Ike’s achievements.
When Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey led the fight for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he had no stronger ally than Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. Minority Republicans in the Senate gave even stronger support, proportionately, than Democrats did to push through that historic legislation.
Dr. King was willing to lay down his life. His assassination by a white racist on April 4, 1968, was the culmination of King’s lifelong advocacy of full equality under law.
“I have been to the mountain top,” Dr. King told his worried supporters in the days before his murder. He had indeed. He saw the promised land of equal justice under law. He had that vision because he kept his eyes on the prize. All Americans can be grateful for his legacy.