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Editorial

MLK and the civil rights heroes among us | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a frequent visitor to Baltimore during his 39 years of life but his impact remains strongly felt in a city still struggling with racial inequality. When the famed civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, this newspaper recalled at least three “official” visits by Dr. King to Maryland’s largest city, the last an appearance in 1966 on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE, the nonviolent group famous for the Freedom Rides through the South. The most noteworthy appearance, however, was in 1964 when the Baptist minister flew to Charm City to campaign on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson against his Republican rival, Barry Goldwater. By that time, Dr. King’s place in history had already been well assured, not only by historic speeches like his “I Have A Dream” address presented at the Lincoln Memorial one year earlier but with the announcement just two weeks before that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize becoming its youngest-ever recipient.

Luckily, those hours spent in Baltimore on Oct. 31, 1964 were captured on film and one photograph in particular of Dr. King has proven transcendent. It shows him sitting in the back seat of a dark convertible during a parade down Gay Street leaning out to shake outstretched hands. The adulation of the people lining the parade route is apparent. It is more than the passing novelty of a celebrity newsmaker in their midst. You see in the eyes of these onlookers, mostly women, gratitude and respect. This was their chance to reach out and touch history. The photograph by Leonard Freed is still widely displayed in venues from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Words are inadequate to describe the emotional reaction of the moment, this outpouring of love for this one impactful man who had shaken the world for the better. Try to look at it and not be moved.

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Yet on this celebration of Dr. King two days after his actual Jan. 15 birthday (the federal holiday falling on the third Monday of January for convenience sake since it was first observed in 1986), it is tempting to wonder: Can we muster the same level of excitement, the same respect, the same appreciation for those who still labor for civil rights? Surely, there is no equivalent to Dr. King today but there are legions from clergy to elected leaders, from activists to authors who remain engaged in the good fight. As doors are opened and ground is broken — Adrienne A. Jones, the first woman and first African American is elected in 2019 to lead the Maryland House of Delegates, for example — do we appreciate their significance? What of corporate executives? University presidents? Nonprofit leaders? Are we even paying attention to this generation’s progress aside from perhaps Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House?

The ongoing fight in the U.S. Senate over voting rights and the likelihood that red states will prevail in their efforts to restrict access to the polls — under the fraudulent claims of widespread fraud or “nationalized” elections which sounds so suspiciously like the “states’ rights” arguments against civil rights of Dr. King’s era — suggests inadequate attention has been paid. Not just to the rise of white nationalism in recent years but to the other side of the ledger, to the average people who fight their own good fight from single parents working hard to create a better life for their children to people like the late Keona Holley, the city police officer laid to rest Tuesday in Windsor Mill. Before she became famous for being ambushed in the line of duty, Officer Holley was quietly trying to make her native Baltimore ― and its Black community, in particular — a better place.

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So please let us take a moment on this most important of holidays to sing the praises of the unheralded who are not destined to win a Nobel, nor to have a street named after them nor even to get a parade down Gay Street but who see discrimination and prejudice, who recognize that the United States of 2022 has not yet achieved the grace that Dr. King envisioned, who want to make the nation, or at least their neighborhood, the street, their home, a better place. As Dr. King so famously observed, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.” The struggle must continue and those selflessly laboring for equality — in ways both big and small — deserve our respect and thanks.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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