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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and His Legacy for Public Officials

Saturday marks the 52nd anniversary of King’s assassination. In looking back at the campaign to end legalized segregation, the participants in the civil rights movement were willing to risk their lives to ensure that everyone could vote and that anyone could aspire to public office.

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The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, D.C., featuring a portrait of the civil rights leader carved in granite. (Shutterstock)
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April 4 is the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he was campaigning for pay raises for the city's sanitation workers. Taking a break from the coronavirus news, I thought I'd catch up on films I had missed over the past couple of years. King in the Wilderness was one critically acclaimed documentary being streamed, so I was pleased when my wife and I found time to watch it.

The film focuses on the last few years of King's life. By the end, we are reminded of how much all of us, and particularly those who are or have served as public officials, owe the civil rights movement.

The men and women in the movement risked and in some cases gave their lives to change federal, state and local laws and policies, to end legalized racial segregation and to ensure the right of all to vote. Young people were at the heart of the movement. King's top lieutenants, including Andrew Young, Ralph David Abernathy, Hosea Williams, C.T. Vivian and Joseph Lowery (who died just a week ago at the age of 98), were mostly in their 20s or early 30s when they joined the movement. King himself was only 39 when an assassin shot him down.

Five years after King's death, I moved to Atlanta for graduate school at Atlanta University (AU), part of a consortium of historically black colleges including King's alma mater, Morehouse College. Civil rights leaders in Atlanta were extremely accessible back then. You could walk up to any of them and talk about the movement and their interactions with infamous segregationists like Birmingham, Ala., Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Conner and that state's governor, George Wallace.

In 1973, I remember meeting Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. King. Lost and late for a meeting, she asked how to find an AU academic building. I gladly, and proudly, escorted her there and remember her warmth and kindness. Ironically, 14 years later I was elected to the Atlanta City Council and she became a constituent and ardent supporter, though I doubt if she remembered that I was the same student who had escorted her to that meeting.

It was 1987 when I first crossed paths with then-Mayor Andy Young as he was coming into City Hall. He addressed me as "Mr. Councilman," although I had not yet won election to the office. Afterward, I worked closely with him and with Hosea Williams, who was elected to the council in 1989. Andy and Hosea taught me what it meant to be a servant-leader. They showed me how positive change could be achieved from within, an interesting perspective from two pivotal players who had worked for decades trying to change public policy from the outside.

Together, we passed progressive legislation and, as a crowning achievement, persuaded the International Olympic Committee to grant Atlanta the privilege of hosting the 1996 Centennial Games. Andy, being a respected former associate of King's and having worked with African leaders when he served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1970s, was pivotal to Atlanta securing the games.

Sometimes we take for granted the qualities that make civil rights leaders special. I recall speaking with Andy's wife Jean in the 1970s, when we were faculty colleagues at a newly opened local junior college, about how proud she must be that Andy had evolved from civil rights leader to a seat in Congress to U.N. ambassador. She challenged me on my perspective, saying that of all of Andy's experiences in public life, none were as meaningful to him as when he served at the side of Dr. King.

What touched me most, though, was Andy's comment early in King in the Wilderness, in a segment that dealt with King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference taking up temporary residence in Chicago to shine a light on housing discrimination. Referring to their comings and goings from the slum tenement where they lived, Andy said: "I was prepared to get killed in the South, but I was not prepared to have a junkie stick a knife in me in the middle of the night coming into that apartment."

That comment brought home to me why the civil rights movement is so important to all Americans, but particularly to those who have answered a call to public service. The participants in the civil rights movement were willing to face off against angry mobs and campaigns of terror so that one day poor black boys like me, growing up in public housing, could live fuller lives and have the right to run for, and win, public office.

As public officials across the country make difficult decisions and take unpopular actions in the face of the coronavirus, and as we probe the deeper meanings of public and civic life, let us not forget the blood that was shed and the sacrifices that were made by Dr. King and others on our behalf. They taught us lessons particularly relevant for these times. For one, we must have faith that, if we act courageously and urgently now, there will be a better day tomorrow. As Dr. King put it so movingly, "Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Government and education columnist
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