By James R. Heck III
Special to the News
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality … I believe that the unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
-Martin Luther King’s acceptance speech, on the occasion of the award for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10, 1964.
The providential paths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, a seamstress, interconnected during the month of December 1955 in Montgomery, Ala. For the next 382 days, U.S. history was in the making.
Often have I wondered if Parks was fearful that December day when she defied the order of bus driver James Blake to give up her seat next to a white passenger. Parks knew what she was doing when she refused Blake’s mandate and she was fully prepared for the arrest that ensued. Her actions that day served as the impetus for what would become a bus boycott lasting 12 months and 17 days.
In 1955, I – a recently commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army – had just begun my tour of duty at Fort Benning, Ga. I was getting firsthand reports of this boycott as I listened attentively and watched grainy black-and-white footage of my people walking and riding any form of transportation they could find, defying the rules of Jim Crow as they went about their daily activities without the use of the public transportation system.
I was angry. I was proud. I wanted to be there to join my people in their struggle. You see, their struggle was also my struggle. This struggle was the culmination of a people who had endured the imposing mindset of enslavement, who had endured the fear of mob cultures, rapes, Ku Klux Klan and lynchings. As a people we were physically and mentally exasperated.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional.
History is dotted with the emergence of great leaders; men and women who have opened our eyes to a better way, who have provided hope in the midst of darkness, who have fought injustices and manufactured goodness and love out of hate and greed. Martin Luther King was such a man.
His brief public life brought great change to this country and ever greater awareness to the evils of injustice that have been inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture. He insisted that we become introspective, that we examine our values and our relationships with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
His was a message to all, a message that reverberated through the land. While this message was controversial and antithetical to the mindsets of many, it struck a chord with millions and began a movement that was exhilarating then, and still calls to us today.
My hope that change will come is daunted as I recall a recent encounter at my gym. Imagine my chagrin when in the locker area I overheard a man directing vile and disgusting remarks for any and all to hear. His tirade was a vitriolic attack on our 44th president and his wife.
So offensive were his remarks, and so angered was I, that I and others chose to leave rather than confront this boor’s racist rants. We cannot remain mired in the muck of racism, the slop of hatred and injustice.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – MLK
James R. Heck III has long been involved in progressive education efforts in Buffalo and served as director of School Integration for the Buffalo Public Schools from 1972 to 1992.