Washington’s new memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. opens to the public today. The opening of this memorial offers us an opportunity to reflect not only on a man but a movement. Every movement needs a person who will step up and make the sacrifices necessary to be not only the spokesperson and spiritual leader but the lightning rod for criticism and potential harm. Dr. King was such a person, but we need to remember those who worked with him and throughout society in the 50s and 60s.
Some were the “shock troops” of the movement who put their bodies and lives on the line for what they believed. Rosa Parks, freedom riders, workers with organizations like CORE, SNCC, and SCLC, students, religious leaders and ordinary men and women—both black and white—stood up for an unpopular cause. Even the President, Attorney General, and other national leaders lagged behind these citizens in taking a stand for civil rights.
There were others who supported the cause in their own way, often working behind the scenes to change attitudes as well as laws. These included many white leaders both inside and outside the church who saw the demonic nature of segregation and sought to change a society.
Several had a great influence on me. Louie Farmer, the director of the Baptist Student Union at the University of Southern Mississippi when I was a student there in the early 1960s, was certainly not an activist, but he put a copy of T. B. Maston’s The Bible and Race in my hands and gave me the impetus to begin formulating a different perspective on race. Harold Kitchings, pastor at University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, did not complete his doctorate in ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, but he conducted informal seminars with a college sophomore that added additional insights to my emerging conscious on racial equality. Others like Robert U. Ferguson, my pastor during teen years, were working with local and denominational structures to change attitudes, and he was a strong influence on my attitudes.
Farmer, Kitchings, and Ferguson will not be mentioned when the King Memorial is dedicated, but they were part of the movement that Dr. King led. They brought the movement down to the individual level, making a difference in my life and the lives of many others.