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On Nov. 2, 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-144 commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday, in the White House rose garden with Coretta Scott King.
On Nov. 2, 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-144 commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday, in the White House rose garden with Coretta Scott King. (White House photo)

This year, the annual commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will take place on Jan. 15. It was nearly 80 years ago that the American civil rights leader from the 1950s and 60s was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929.

He is perhaps best recognized for his “I have a dream” speech, which he delivered in front of 250,000 civil rights supporters, on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

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The life and accomplishments of King were signed into law as a national holiday in 1983 and first observed in 1986. On Jan. 18, 1986 President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation declaring the third Monday in January of each year a public holiday in honor of the birthday of King. The annual holiday was not observed by all 50 states until 2000. For many years, several states observed the holiday on the same day with Gen. Robert E. Lee.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of King’s tragic assassination on April 4, 1968 as he was talking on the balcony of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He died in St. Joseph's Hospital from a gunshot wound in the neck.

King first burst on the national leadership screen on Dec. 5, 1955, five days after Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city's rules mandating segregation on buses. In the following years King's reputation grew as he became Time magazine's Man of the Year and, in December 1964, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite fame and accolades, however, King faced many challenges to his leadership. What made King’s leadership so great? It is a question I have explored a number of times in this space over the last 15 years. King was able to prevail in an incredibly adversarial leadership climate. He brought about change at a critical and pivotal moment in American history when change was not popular. Perhaps he drew from his theological studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and at Boston University, where he received a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955.

No doubt he drew from Paul’s letter to Timothy in the New Testament. Apparently, those teaching false doctrine were an impediment to Timothy's efforts in Ephesus. In his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 3, verses 1-12, Paul lists the qualities that a potential leader must possess. In essence, what Paul is trying to convey in these passages is that a person who desires to be a leader must show self-control, honesty, and good management in the other aspects of his life.

In Chapter 4, Paul stresses spiritual discipline and the ability to lead by example. Paul stresses the importance of Timothy's actions reinforcing his teaching and that Timothy must work harder to train his mind and heart. And in Chapter 5, Paul explains the procedure for confronting an elder with a complaint against him. These were all important aspects of King’s life.

For example, Malcolm X's (1925-1965) message of self-defense and black nationalism expressed the discontent and anger of northern, urban blacks more effectively than did King's moderation.

It is important to study history, not as much to go back to the past but to bring the lessons of the past to the present.

Closer to home, in Westminster, we have our own community leaders to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude for working hard in the face of enormous obstacles to do the right thing and fight injustice.

It was McDaniel College that led the way. McDaniel took a leadership position for positive social change and intellectual leadership in helping desegregate Westminster. Visionaries such as Ira Zepp, Del Palmer, Charles Crain, Bill David, Sam Case, Wray Mowbray, and Robert and Phyllis Scott were critical players in bringing racial diversity to McDaniel and Westminster.

In the 1950s, the African-American athletes on Baltimore Colts participating at summer practices on The Hill, were another important impetus in the desegregation of Westminster.

It was not until 1969 that the first African-Americans, Charles Victor McTeer and Charles Smothers, graduated from McDaniel.

With one eye on the challenges we face in 2018; in the memory of King, this might be a great opportunity to read the "I Have a Dream Speech," or my personal favorite: “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to re-acquaint yourselves with the prophetic message of a great American. There is no better time to ponder the impact of a great leader using positive words, love, respect, and understanding — not violence or disrespect — to make positive change.

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