He could have taken a walk on easy street, but Martin Luther King Jr. decided to march instead.
He grew up in racially charged Atlanta, but he graduated from college and had just received a PhD from Boston University in systematic theology. He had a job as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Obviously, living in Birmingham was no way to escape systemic racism.
“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel,” King said. “This was my first calling, and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”
That part of his ministry consumed and finally claimed his life.
In November of 1955, King had been married a couple of years and the couple had their first daughter.
The Brown v. Board of Education ruling came down from the Supreme Court the year before. There was some momentum in the right direction.
King could have stayed on the sidelines. He had a young family. The civil rights movement had leadership.
Earlier in the year, a young African American girl was arrested for not vacating her seat on a Montgomery bus so a white man could sit down. Instead of pulling the teenager into the spotlight, a group of people interested in civil rights set up a test of the system.
The system failed again.
This time, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and was arrested for her act of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of several leaders involved in the event and helped coordinate and execute the Montgomery Bus Boycott that last more than a year until their case finally made it to the Supreme Court where the rules segregating buses was found to be unconstitutional.
That was the beginning of his role as a leader in the civil rights movement.
Everyone knows what King did during his decade as the face of a movement that increased rights for minorities.
A tougher question to answer is why he did it.
He saw the same things going on in the world that every other southern black pastor and family man saw.
What made him different?
The problems had existed for years. While others recognized the wrongs and complained about the status quo, he took action and changed the world.
He dreamed of a world where black children and white children would play together without recognizing the difference in race. In the five decades since his death, America has come a long way. But, the work of the civil rights movement is far from over.
We do still live in a world where a black child with a toy gun is a thug who is shot and killed with no repercussions while armed white men can turn federal land into a compound they claim for their own and their only punishment is having to do without snacks.
I have a white son and a black son. The vast majority of people treat them both equally well the vast majority of the time. But even as an 8-year-old, my black son has endured unkind comments and actions because his hair and skin are a little darker.
I am not surprised because I was never naïve enough to believe racism was dead. But, the existence of these beliefs proves that the work King took on and advanced is far from complete.
Recognizing the problem and complaining about it aren’t enough. Someone has to take action and make a difference.
King did that. What keeps you from making a difference, too? Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star and can be reached at kent.bush@news-star.com.