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How can you understand the life of Martin Luther King Jr. if you don’t understand the historical time period in which he was raised?
That is the question addressed by Ashley Barnhill, history instructor, during a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Thursday, Jan. 17.
“I have no clue except history because I didn’t grow up in a segregated place,” Barnhill said. “How can you understand King if you don’t know the history of that time?”
Barnhill traced the path to King’s actions and even his death, beginning in 1619 with the first record of African Americans arriving in the United States.
“Within 40 years, black/African meant slave. The colonial America system was set up for slavery. You rarely heard anyone talk about slavery in the first 100 years in any way other than economically,” Barnhill said.
In the early 1800s there was a colonization effort to ship blacks back to Africa.
“The leaders were stunned that the slaves and free blacks didn’t want to leave. They had already found a new home and wanted to be here and wanted to be free. It was a radical concept at the time,” Barnhill continued.
In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, a northern abolitionist, forever changed the argument about slavery to one of morality. The situation led to the Civil War and to the Emancipation Proclamation.
“One day you are a slave. Your kids are going to be slaves. Your grandkids are going to be slaves. Then one day you are free,” Barnhill said. “No one really thought about what it meant.”
Federal troops remained in the South for 10 years until 1877. Rights and protection for slaves disappeared.
“If your right to vote is gone, if I am a politician, why on earth would I do anything for you?” Barnhill asked.
He explained when blacks would arrive to vote they would be asked to read and explain text from the Constitution.
“This was the start of disenfranchising blacks. It was a literacy test. In the late 1870s blacks in the South weren’t voting. Segregation comes later. It came when voting rights were lost.”
Barnhill explained in the South there were two different worlds—blacks and whites.
“In 1929, that was the world Martin Luther King was born into,” Barnhill said.
King graduated high school at 15 and went on to get a four-year degree and attend seminary. He later went to Boston University to get his doctorate.
At the time Boston University was an integrated school with 10 percent black students. King became class president. King met and married Coretta Scott who was from Alabama.
“He is clearly finding his way,” Barnhill said. “He took a job in Montgomery, Alabama, preaching at a church. The options were limitless at this time in his life. He can’t know what’s getting ready to happen.
“He grew up in a house with 1930s civil rights of turning the other cheek. He had studied the concept of passive resistance. In 1955 there was a signature moment when Rosa Parks decided not to get off the bus.”
Barnhill said Parks was exactly what the civil rights movement and the NAACP were looking for—someone people could relate to.
King helped lead a boycott of the transportation system that lasted for almost a year and crippled the system; 70 percent of their customers were black, Barnhill said.
“No violence, that was the key,” Barnhill said. “By the late 1950s, King is clearly emerging as a leader. Passive resistance is working, but how much patience is there? The violence and fighting are getting harder to ignore. In 1965 there is another group forming saying things like ‘any means necessary’ and ‘black power.’”
There is a split in the movement between the North and the South as King’s conversations began to publicly connect poverty to racism and war.
King challenged the Vietnam War and in doing so lost a valuable political ally in Lyndon Johnson.
“This causes a split in the civil rights movement. The last year of King’s life was a very different King. His anti-Vietnam message was pretty powerful and very controversial. In 1967, the war wasn’t unpopular. Five years later a lot more people would be anti-war but King really went out on a limb.”
In 1968 King headed to Memphis to help sanitation workers who were on strike, and it turned violent.
“He’s aging. He has lived 100 years at age 39. He’s tired. It’s getting tough. Think about what he has done in the last 15 years,” Barnhill said. “He is at the hotel waiting to relocate to eat. He is waiting for his friend Ralph Abernathy. He steps onto the balcony. His car is below. He is talking to the guys below when they hear a shot. It hits King in the jaw/neck. It is a shot everyone knows is a mortal wound. King was constantly predicting he wouldn’t live to be 40.”
James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King Jr.
“There are conspiracies because we just can’t fathom one terrible person killing one good person,” Barnhill said. “After King’s death his wife led a peaceful rally in Memphis, but across America racial tension exploded. There were riots in virtually every city in America.
“King knew at 25 when he does this (leads the civil rights movement) that he will be dead soon. He committed himself to a life of struggle, pain and sacrifice.
“What’s King’s legacy? Forty percent of African Americans never graduate high school after starting ninth grade. Twenty-eight percent of blacks are at the poverty level as compared to 16 percent of whites. There are things not yet realized.
“What are you doing to change that? What is your legacy going to be? What are you doing? King gave it all so the opportunity would be there. What are you going to do about it?”
Rachel Johnson is a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email@example.com