As we approach Martin Luther King Day, we look forward to revisiting and honoring the profound impact of Rev. King's history on our nation and ourselves, making vivid the highlights of that history and its lessons. We celebrate the gift of his leadership, extraordinary moral courage, pursuit of freedom and justice, and unflinching determination to defeat bigotry and prejudice. We remember his wisdom, seeking to reawaken for others, particularly our youth, his message of equality and devotion to peace. We thus renew our own commitment to his eternal legacy of hope and justice.
Detailing this legacy to our youth is of paramount importance. There is empowerment for them in understanding the role of young people in the struggle for civil rights. Bozeman’s students study the history of civil rights in America, but perhaps not the details of the role of people not much older than themselves.
Actions organized by Rev. King and others resulted in all citizens being granted the right to vote; participation of young people in large numbers was a crucial component. Today, we take for granted our absolute right to vote, but in the segregated and Jim Crow South, fear was used to convince blacks not to seek change. Those attempting to register voters were beaten, fired from their jobs, often lynched.
Fifty years ago thousands of students left their classrooms and marched on downtown Birmingham, Ala. The ensuing "Children’s Crusade" planned by Rev. King, was a pivotal action in the long fight for equal rights for African Americans. When the children marched on Birmingham, they were arrested and jailed. Rev. King said at that time, “When you are marching, you are standing straight, and no man can ride your back unless it is bent.”
After the first day of children marching from the church in groups of 50, they were met by police commissioner Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses. The bravery and determination of Birmingham children facing that brutality appeared on front pages of newspapers all around the country and the world. They turned public opinion in support of the movement's fight for justice and equality, convincing the city of Birmingham to fire Connor and negotiate with Rev. King. The “Children’s Crusade” had worked, helping turn the tide for desegregation and equal rights.
Four young college students in Greensboro, N.C. were the first sit-ins, in 1960. They sat at the Woolworth lunch counter, were denied service but refused to surrender their seats until the store closed. They returned the next day, and soon 300 students had joined the protest. The store was ultimately forced to agree to integrate its lunch counter, and began serving black customers. Sit-ins spread to college towns nationwide, with young blacks and whites together holding peaceful protests in 55 cities. The Greensboro Woolworth integration was a victory for equality and a notable contribution by young people to the achievement of justice.
Emphasizing the role of young people in civil rights history reminds them of the importance of becoming part of the process, not simply watching events go by. Whatever one’s dream of justice, one’s version of a moral society, one’s understanding of progress towards true equality, it is worthwhile to be aware of precedents, knowing that no one is too young to speak up passionately and to stand up for their principles, that no man, as Rev. King said in Birmingham, can ride your back unless it is bent.
Bozeman’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day is from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 19, in the Emerson ballroom. A keynote address by Montana State president Waded Cruzado will open the celebration, and music, a parade for peace, local student original artwork and speeches will be featured.
Carmen McSpadden, of the MSU Leadership Institute, Jan ‘Profe’ Krieger, Beth Boyson, Dan Lourie, John Rios, Ruth Forrest and Ariel Donahue are members of the local MLK Day Celebration Committee.