Undergraduate Academic Affairs

January 12, 2018

Let MLK week inspire the birth of a new set of values

Ed Taylor

One of the few days my mother wept in my presence was April 4, 1968, the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years ago this year. When I think of Dr. King’s life and death, I often think of women like my mother who seemed to hold undisclosed and unnoticed stories of suffering.

Black women of my mother’s time held true to a quest for positive identities, complicated by the overlapping oppression of race, class and gender. They were brave survivors who lived under the shadow of oppression but did not lose their faith or humanity. The memory of their efforts, routinely missing in history, is coming to light now.

In the closing comments of his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community,” Dr. King wrote: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. … This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.” According to him, “For its very survival’s sake, America must re-examine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born.”

Photo of civil rights protestor and police dog.

Police dog attacks a civil rights protester.

I think about some of those key phrases and ideas in a 2018 context: “the fierce urgency of now;” “chaos or community;” a re-examination of our values. Our values and habits relating to women must change. It can start by seeing truth in the overlooked contributions women made to the civil rights movement. Dr. King’s call to moral vision without hubris asks us to see that the historical images of the most dramatic moments of the civil rights movement — protesters blasted by fire hoses and dogs lunging at Black people — are often images of women and girls.

Photo of nine students who integrated Little Rock High School in 1957

Little Rock Nine and Daisy Bates posed in living room. Photo from Library of Congress archives.

The 1957 image of six young Black women who became the Little Rock Nine and who risked their lives to integrate Arkansas high schools shows us truth. To see the 1964 image of Mississippi beautician Vera Pigee styling hair and educating her customers on voter registration is to see a certain truth. The 1963 photo of students, mostly women, at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college, answering court charges for protesting segregated movie theaters shows truth.

Women served as teachers, civil rights organizers and as lawyers on school segregation lawsuits, and they “played vital roles in the struggle for human rights and justice in the South and the nation,” according to Vivian Malone Jones, the first Black female director of the nonpartisan Voter Education Project. Mildred Bond Roxborough a long-time secretary of the NAACP, discussed the importance of women leaders in local branches: “Well, actually when you think about women’s contributions to the NAACP, without the women we wouldn’t have an NAACP.”

Photo of students in a courtroom in1963.

Some of the 220 African-American students from Florida A&M in a circuit court room to face charges of contempt for demonstrating against segregated movie theaters.

In society, and even within the movement, many Black women experienced discrimination and harassment. Starting in 2009, the Civil Rights History Project interviewed participants in the struggle and included points of pride along with candid assessments about the difficulties women faced within the movement.

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and one of three women to serve as field director for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. She noted that gender equality was not a given: “I often had to struggle around issues related to a woman being a project director. … We had to fight … it was a struggle to be taken seriously by the leadership, as well as by your male colleagues.”

I love this statement made by Dorothy Height, an extraordinarily effective leader for civil and women’s rights who — along with so many involved women — most people probably don’t know. Dorothy Height wanted to “be remembered as a woman who used herself and anything she could for justice and freedom. I want to be remembered as one who tried.”

Photo of women marching in March on Washington

Women marching in 1963 March on Washington. Photo from Library of Congress.

How will we try? As individuals and as a community, how will we change our habits, listen with humility, learn to trust women’s stories, and not just bear witness to but march alongside women? It is time to extend the work for justice and equality where Dr. King left off in Memphis the day he died. If we are to learn from this moment, on the 50th anniversary of his death, let’s choose community over chaos and view King’s birthday and his death as a renewed call to action to use ourselves for justice and liberty for all.