By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar
Special to the AFRO
As we approach the birthday and national holiday in recognition of the life and legacy of human rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), I am remembering his impact that was felt locally, nationally and internationally. Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., chief lobbyist for the NAACP, 1950 – 1978, described Dr. King as “close to being a saint as any person in the twentieth century.” We can learn so much from Dr. King.
Dr. King didn’t wait for polling results to determine whether or not an issue was popular enough to support. To the contrary, if he believed in an issue, he advocated for it and worked in coalition with others of like minds to build consensus so that change would occur. He understood this was not popular, so he developed and relied on a network of other human rights allies who supported this kind of advocacy. Many of these allies are well known, like Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Bernard Lee, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Ambassador Andrew Young. But others were not so well known; Baltimore’s Rev. I Logan Kearse of Cornerstone Church of Christ and Rev. Marcus Wood of Providence Baptist Church. Rev. Kearse supported the sit in movement of the 1960’s and was arrested more than half a dozen times. One of those arrests was with Dr. King in Albany, Georgia. On more than one occasion, Dr. King spoke at Rev. Kearse’s church. Rev. Kearse was also said to be among those who accompanied Dr. King to Norway in December of 1964 to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. Rev. Marcus Wood met Dr. King when they were classmates at Crozier Theological Seminary in 1948. Rev. Wood became a leading voice in numerous organizations including the Urban League and Baltimore Branch of the NAACP. They remained in alliance and communication until Dr. King’s assassination in 1968.
On January 5, 1964, Dr. King spoke in Baltimore at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge’s annual emancipation proclamation commemoration services on Eutaw Place. The week before, Dr. King had been chosen as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1963. The audience of more than 3,000 reportedly erupted in applause when Dr. King entered. He talked about some of the myths that prevented the Negro from emancipation. Among the myths he refuted was the myth of time, that the Negro had to be patient and wait. Dr. King said, “Our gains have been by the pressure of those who will not wait.” He also refuted the myth that legislative and judicial decrees can’t solve problems of racial injustice. He said this was a half-truth, that behavior can be regulated. He said, “Laws can prevent people from lynching me.”
Dr. King went on in his remarks to say that, “We must make it clear that (the clause) will not be cut out.” He was referring to the clause in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. As the bill was being introduced to Congress, there was political pressure to remove the clause that covered discrimination in public accommodations. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with the NAACP, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and others worked in coalition to shape consensus that the clause should not be removed. Ultimately, it was not removed, and the landmark legislation passed. It was signed into law on July 2, 1964.
As we enter a new decade, we should be talking to our family, friends, and neighbors about the issues that are impacting our community. Advocacy begins with our voices, joining with allies, to become a movement. We deserve to have representatives who exhibit the courage to vigorously advocate for the issues impacting us and who will work in coalition with like-minded allies.
Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s family, the Jackson/Mitchells of Maryland left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century, helping to build local and national organizations; also serving in every level of government and the United Nations. Senaar, whose career includes a decade in broadcast media, now works in state government, is married and the mother of two teenagers.