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Public Service and the Still-Relevant Causes of the Civil Rights Era

More of today's public officials and candidates should remember the principles that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues and supporters put their lives on the line for.

New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks during a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
New York Mayor Eric Adams speaks during a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Jan. 15, 2024.
(Lev Radin/Shutterstock)
On April 4, 1968, I was playing basketball at a gym at an Episcopal church in Columbia, Mo., when the pastor, Gary Mitchener, interrupted our game to tell us that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, where King was supporting a strike by city sanitation workers. Mitchener, angered and heartbroken, used a few un-Christian words to reveal to us what had just happened. My emotions went numb; I couldn’t think rationally, and I could barely move.

Public officials at all levels of government are, or should be, assessing how far we’ve come in terms of embracing principles for which King gave his life 56 years ago, including treating public employees, particularly those who do back-breaking, dangerous work like taking away our trash, with dignity and respect. This topic is particularly distressing to me because in 1994 I lost my 28-year-old brother, who died in the line of duty on a sanitation truck.

We also should remember that King and other civil rights leaders made important contributions to governing by insisting that the halls and chambers of government be opened to all. Public officials under the age of 52, the average age of a U.S. mayor, might not know what King and his allies did to make government at all levels more democratic and open. Without the civil rights movement, African Americans and members of other minority groups would not have been elected to public offices in anything like the numbers that they have been.

There is perhaps no better example than Atlanta, where I live. The city has elected seven Black mayors consecutively since 1973, when Maynard Jackson won the office. According to the National Conference of Black Mayors, there are now more than 640 Black mayors across the nation, representing 48 million citizens. Yet while African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for less than 4 percent of our mayors.

I had just turned 17 when King was assassinated, but when I held public office a couple of decades later, I did have the good fortune of knowing two other towering figures of the civil rights movement: Congressman John Lewis and the brilliant strategist C.T. Vivian. Beyond that, I served on the Atlanta City Council when Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and congressman, was mayor; Hosea Williams, a former King field organizer, was a fellow councilmember; and Carolyn Long Banks, a prominent student activist in the early 1960s, was the first Black woman elected to the City Council.

Those former King colleagues and supporters told stories and provided firsthand accounts of what it was like working alongside the man so many have dubbed “a prince of peace.” Young told me that as young activists they were prepared to die for the cause of freedom. Williams told me that his threats of boycotts were tactical, to get businesses to negotiate with Young and King. I listened with astonishment and awe. I was in my mid-30s at the time, but when they were facing off against racist governors, mayors and sheriffs, they had been in their 20s.

The way those colleagues’ experiences shaped their approach to public service brings to mind a Boston University study from a decade ago on the attitudes and forces that drive mayors. According to the study’s authors, while most mayors get ideas from experts, peers and their constituents, their most frequently cited source for policy information is their staffs. Relying heavily on the advice of staff is to be expected, but it signals a need for greater diversity among public employees so mayors receive balanced perspectives.
Workers lowering a Martin Luther King Jr. time capsule in Washington, D.C.
Members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family watch as workers at Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza lower a time capsule containing some of King’s belongings. King worked on his “I Have a Dream” speech at the nearby Willard Hotel.
(Library of Congress)
The values of the civil rights movement that were etched in my moral conscience were the primary reasons I became a public official. Today I often ask myself who or what sets the values of young people who are now running for or holding public office. Many young candidates seek my support, and I ask them the same question: Why are you running? Many tell me they believe that the incumbent is doing a bad job and they believe they can do better.

Few tell me, as King influenced me to believe, that there is “a moral compass that points toward justice” and that we owe ourselves and the people we represent the promise to always fight for justice. King also spoke about service leadership, saying, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” How many public officials do we encounter nowadays who believe this? It appears that many think of local elected office as nothing more than a steppingstone to a higher one or a means of positioning themselves to capitalize on high-paying corporate jobs once they leave office.

I believe that King, who never served in elected office, remains relevant and important to public officials. His life and death remind us that, as he put it, “life isn't worth living until you have found something worth dying for.” What better causes than to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked and welcome strangers — responsibilities that are increasingly those of local government. I wish more current or aspiring public officials would think about these causes before they offer themselves as a candidate.

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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