April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. Left to right: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, historian Henry Steele Commager, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. John Bennett (President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC). (Credit: John C. Goodwin)

MLK’s legacy still shines in his hometown

Jan 12, 2023

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rose from his seat at the Riverside Church in New York City and strode to the podium in the middle of the sanctuary for what would be one of the most provocative speeches of his life. 

“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” written by historian Vincent Gordon Harding with numerous redrafts by King, was a bold indictment against American involvement in the Vietnam War by the young preacher who had become the public — and often reviled — face of the American civil rights movement.  

The speech was a radical departure from his Lincoln Memorial “I Have A Dream” speech and drew criticism from The Washington Post and The New York Times. Even the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, denounced King for tying the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement. 

A year later — to the day — King was dead, felled by an assassinʼs bullet.

As America prepares to celebrate King’s birthday this weekend (he would have been 94 on Sunday),  schools, civic and religious organizations, scholars and others will reflect on one of Georgia’s most famous native sons and his impact on the American civil rights movement.

The 39th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration of Service will be held Friday at 11 a.m. in the north wing of the State Capitol. President Joe Biden will speak Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King was ordained as a minister at the age of 19 and where he later co-pastored with his father. On Monday, the national holiday, the Atlanta History Center has a day of activities commemorating King.

It’s a year of milestones for the slain civil rights icon. April 4 will be the 55th anniversary of his death. The 60th anniversary of his "I Have a Dream Speech" in Washington, D.C., is Aug. 28.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on Aug. 28, 1963.

In just 13 years — between 1955 until his assassination in 1968 — King was instrumental in leading the integration of America’s buses, hotels, restaurants, schools and other public accommodations. Two important pieces of legislation — the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — also emerged during that time, prohibiting discrimination and enabling Blacks to vote. Each law was hewn from miles of marching and bloody protests.

Closer to home, King’s legacy influenced Georgia politicians like Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson to push for affirmative action.

In 2017, a statue of King was unveiled on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, overlooking Liberty Plaza.

“Dr. King was the face of the movement, the spirit of the movement,” Atlantan Tom Houck told State Affairs. Houck, 75, served as the driver and personal aide to King and his family from 1966 until King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Today, Houck is the owner and operator of Civil Rights Tours Atlanta.

“What he did was unlike any other person. He had his finger on everything. He changed the face of the country and the world, and all of the things we see today in the realm of progress and civil rights,” Houck said. 

His influence also laid the foundation for social and political advancements: growth in the Black middle class and representation of people of color in Congress. One in 4 voting members of the U.S. Congress identifies their race or ethnicity as other than non-Hispanic White, making the 118th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse.

Few would deny the influence of King’s legacy on the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first Black president. And in Georgia, the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, are two examples.

Perhaps no other place encapsulates the mind of King better than his home state of Georgia which has some of his vast collections of sermons, writings and speeches, including “Beyond Vietnam.”

Some 13,000 items make up the Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at The Robert W. Woodruff Library in the Atlanta University Center. The historical body of work is owned by Morehouse College, King’s alma mater.

Stored in a vault the size of a small walk-in closet, the collection spans from 1944  to 1968 and includes a Bluebook King used during a Bible exam while a student at Morehouse, drafts of his Nobel Peace Prize lecture and acceptance speech, the eulogy he gave for three of the four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, and the partially-typed draft of his dissertation for the doctoral program at Boston  University. The collection also includes King’s correspondence with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as well as human rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X, and 1,100 books from Kingʼs personal library and the briefcase he was carrying when he was assassinated.

King’s work was a “blueprint for the struggle,” said Vicki Crawford, director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. “Not only that, [King] leaves an important legacy for transformative leaders of the 21st Century.” 

Crawford said the civil rights movement is part of a continuum of struggle. 

“It takes different forms,” said Crawford, a civil rights scholar. “What I see is the timelessness and the universality of Kingʼs ideas. It goes on.” 

The collection remains “a tremendous responsibility” that Crawford relishes. It extends beyond its Woodruff library home. Morehouse has a partnership with the Center for Civil and Human Rights where some of the collectionʼs materials are displayed.

Going forward, Crawfordʼs vision for the collection is two-fold. She wants to expose more young people to the collection and its various programs. She also is working to create a “national and international footprint” for the collection. 

The Morehouse collectionʼs own story is an intriguing one. The collection was slated to be auctioned at the famed Sothebyʼs in New York, but a group of Atlantaʼs civic and corporate leaders, known as the Atlanta Community Foundation, as well as former Mayor Shirley Franklin, intervened and purchased the collection for $32 million to ensure that it remained in Atlanta, Kingʼs hometown.

Emory Political Science Professor Andra Gillespie cautions against deifying King.

“It’s important for us to dismantle this notion of a unitary, charismatic leader. That has proven to be problematic in many different instances,” said Gillespie, who is also director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference at Emory. “But I can't deny the importance and the leadership role that King played in nonviolent protests that helped to dismantle Jim Crow segregation, helped to create voting rights for African Americans, [gave] Blacks the right to vote, the ability to be influential in elections, not only statewide but nationally.” 

King didn’t act alone, Gillespie added. Major civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) played decisive roles as well.

“There’s still work to do,” Gillespie said. “Inequality still persists. Rights that people fought for 60 years ago are still the challenge today. So the lesson for all of us, is each generation [is] fighting for securing rights. We've seen evidence of that. So as much as Black Lives Matter critiques the long civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, they all stand on their shoulders. Many of these activists are very self-aware that they are building on the work of what [King] did.”

The King Center has a full calendar of 2023 King Holiday Observance Events.

Celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at events across Georgia.

The Otis Redding Foundation released a new song, “Show Love,” written and produced by students ages 12-18. The song is based on a sermon “Loving Your Enemies” which Dr. King delivered at Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL on November 17, 1957, and includes a live excerpt of the sermon.

Tammy Joyner is State Affairs’ senior investigative reporter in Georgia. A Georgia transplant, she has lived in the Peach State for 28  years. You can reach her on Twitter @LVJOYNER or at [email protected].

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Header image: April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. Left to right: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, historian Henry Steele Commager, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. John Bennett, President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC. (Credit: John C. Goodwin, courtesy of Riverside Church)

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