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Audacity Capacity: Martin Luther King

A reflection of what the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial means now and what he meant years ago.

The following column is being re-run in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day today:

It was late August, 2011 when the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. was initially planned. But, because of Hurricane Irene it was postponed.

I think canceling the dedication that day was unfortunate because Aug. 28 was the 48th anniversary of the Civil Rights March in Washington, an historic event that drew approximately 250,000 people to the mall to hear King’s inspired I Have a Dream speech.

It is amazing to me how far we have come, and yet how far we still need to go. We have a president who epitomizes the uniting of a black African and a white American, but the challenges to his legitimacy as an American still stinks of racism. It seems to me that there are people who are still reeling from the fact that a black man is in the White House and they won’t rest until he is out of office.

I took a virtual tour of the $120 million memorial and was so impressed. It is a monumental and moving tribute to a man of peace and courage. Walking toward the monument you see almost two hundred cherry blossom trees before you come upon three huge stones; one called the Stone of Hope is a 30-foot sculpture of King carved out of a pale pink granite.

The other two stones represent one stone cut in half and are called the Mountain of Despair. The names come from the I Have a Dream speech King that he made on the day of the March.

Seeing the memorial in a virtual space only made me want to see it in person. I’m looking forward to going to Washington, but I’ll wait until a less crowded time to do so.

In addition to the three stones, there is a 450-foot wall where 14 of King’s quotes are etched. We have all heard parts of the speech he made on the day of the Civil Rights March; especially the parts where he lists his dreams.

But he also said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up ...”

It seems to me that those words are prophetic given the times; economic as well as political. There are too many self-centered idealogues trying to tear down what other-centered men like King and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson put into place.

Audacity is a wonderful, but underused word. President Obama mirrored King when he used the word in the name of his book, Audacity of Hope. I think it takes audacity to fight the tyranny of cynicism and to not be embarrassed to use the word love.

During King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo on Dec. 10, 1964, less than four years before he was killed, he said that he refused to be cynical and still believed that the foundation for peace and brotherhood is love.

I went back to the Red Bank Register archives of Aug. 28, 1963 and found that four buses and more than 230 people had the audacity to take buses at "5 o'clock" in the morning to participate in historic Civil Rights March on Washington.

Although there was no mention of buses leaving from Middletown, I’ve no doubt that many people from the large, diverse township drove to Red Bank to get on one of the buses that left from the First Methodist Church on Broad Street and from West Bergen Place in Red Bank to join together to march for jobs and freedom.

According to the article, the weather promised to be good for Washington in August, "sunny, with a high of about 84. Even before dawn, a small vanguard of marchers strode onto the green acres of the Washington Monument grounds singing 'We Shall Overcome' …. The march will dramatize the demonstrators' plea that Negro jobs and freedom are needed now."

Another article, by the Associated Press, on the front page of the next day’s Register, reported that “New Jerseyans were among the thousands of demonstrators from around the country who converged on Washington today to back President Kennedy's proposed civil rights legislation.

"The Garden Staters marched with praise from their governor. 'I commend this peaceful mobilization of conscience in which so many New Jerseyans are participating,' Gov. Richard J. Hughes said in a statement preliminary to the departures from the state.”

Even the New Jersey Turnpike Authority got involved: “A favored route to Washington for those going by bus or car, they made special arrangements to accommodate the demonstrators ... In anticipation of some 850 busloads from New England and New York besides New Jersey participants, turnpike officials provided for increased food, rest rooms, police patrol, and emergency breakdown services.

"The turnpike's charter bus stop at Cranbury was geared to provide food for more than 2,600 persons an hour. The Pennsylvania Railroad reserved 13 trains out of New York tor the travelers. One of them was called the Newark Freedom Train. This train and three others scheduled stops at Newark."

That day, Aug. 29, 1963, it was reported that the four busloads of area people and a six-car caravan returned to Red Bank early in the morning with “230 exhausted and triumphantly happy people ...”  

The article continued: “The March for Jobs and Freedom was all that any marcher had hoped, one participant after another said. Footsore and weary, but smiling, all commented on the quiet, peaceful nature of the demonstration; the gentle good humor of the vast crowds, and the total lack of any violent incidents.”

A second article on Aug. 29, noted that speaker after speaker told the 200,000 Negro and white sympathizers massed in front of the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday that their demonstration was no more than a beginning.

"Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content," said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual."

The article noted that one bus carried "11 housewives, five domestic workers, three collage students, three teachers, three reporters, two chemists, two NAD Earle ordnance workers, and one each of the following: physicist, editor, clerical worker, minister, electronic engineer, rabbi, optometrist barber, salesman, mechanic, maintenance man, retired man, railroad trackman, salesgirl, bookkeeper, beautician, mortgage investment man, practical nurse and construction laborer. There were 21 men and 30 women; 40 Negroes and 11 whites. All said at the end of an exhausting 22-hour day that they were happy they had gone.”

Unfortunately, although President Kennedy had the audacity to propose a Civil Rights Bill, he did not live long enough to see it enacted. That distinction fell to President Lyndon Johnson.

According to the press reports, one supporter shouted out when Dr. King began to speak, “The next president of the United States.”

Well it took 40 years to elect a president of color and he was elected by an unprecedented number of blacks, Hispanics and young people, who saw in Obama a fair minded, intelligent, and color blind leader.

But with the number of unemployed persons at 13.9 million and the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent overall, the promise of jobs for black people is still lacking. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 15.9 percent. 

An editorial in the Register on Aug. 30, 1963, noted: “We do not know whether Wednesday's historic march on Washington will bring about Congressional approval of a strong civil rights bill. We wish we could say that all of our legislators in Washington were moved, as we were, by the massive, orderly and dignified demonstration to dramatize that our Negro citizens do not enjoy the identical rights of other Americans. But, whatever the outcome of the march will be, we know that the conscience of the Republic has been aroused in a way that it had never been aroused before. Certainly, this march was only a beginning. But it was a magnificent beginning — and from it we are certain that the cause of the Negro will be advanced.”

I can’t help but think about one of my dearest friends, who now lives in Nevada. We met at Rutgers University in the late 1980s when we were both 30-something undergrads in the English department.

We were each married, had children, worked during the day, and took classes at night. Being so busy, did not stop us from writing for the school newspaper where we met. She went on to get her MA in reading education and worked her way up to a technical writer at AT&T.  I remember asking her if she found it more difficult to be a woman in the workforce, or a black person. She answered, “A black person.” 

If it wasn’t for the civil rights and women’s movements, I don’t know if either of us would have had the audacity to reach for more than was expected of us.

Honoring the profound influence that Dr. King had on the peaceful movement for civil rights is important. He was one-of-a-kind and is still revered 43 years after his tragic death.

According to the memorial Web site, the memorial is open to the public and the dedication will be scheduled for sometime in September or October.

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