Toward a Better World: Following the Way of Martin Luther King

Recently, I returned to my home town and found myself flipping through a fake “yearbook” students assembled that asked students who they thought their peers wanted to be like. Someone wrote “to be like Martin Luther King” for me. It’s true that I grew up as a follower of Dr. King, though I hadn’t realized how obvious it must have been to others.

Dr. King speaking during “phase one” of  the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, sometime before Ku Klux Klan members bombed it on September 15, 1963.  (Joe Chapman)

 

Dr. King speaking during “phase one” of the civil rights movement at the 
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Joe Chapman)

I grew up in the small town of Williamston, Michigan, where the only person “of color” I knew of was Mexican American. While I wasn’t exposed to racial or ethnic diversity, I’m grateful to my parents who taught me to be open minded, to treat others as I wished to be treated, to read and reflect—and, also, to pay attention. Like many others, I still vividly recall those images of vicious dogs and fire hoses turned on black children in Birmingham, Alabama, and troopers on horseback, riding people down in Selma. I had spent happy summers in Detroit, where my parents grew up, but not after the summer of 1967, when police brutality set off an unbelievably turbulent inner-city rebellion that makes today’s revolt in Ferguson, Missouri look tame. Detroit had experienced a horrific white race riot in 1943 and most whites in the 1960s still seemed terrified of black folks moving into their neighborhoods or taking their jobs.

To address the poverty of the inner cities like Detroit, in 1968 Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to take the poor to the nation’s capitol to demand that money for war be spent instead on jobs, housing, health care, and education. As an Oakland University college student, I helped recruit a busload of people to go to Washington DC. But King never made the journey: an assassin’s bullet cut him down. I will never forget the despair my parents, Keith and Betty, and my brother, Charles, and sister, Maureen, felt at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. My mother’s tearful comments echoed the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos, or Community?