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"Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Dream": article draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1980 (year approximate) to 1995 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Drafts for the Las Vegas Sentinel Voice file. On George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. comparisons.

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man001059. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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At first glance it might seem superfluous to initiate an essay on the subject of Dr. Martin Luther King by speaking of George Washington. Even though it is acknowledged that the two are profoundly different, I am of the opinion that it is due to those differences that an interdependence exists.
When we think of George Washington we often begin in the realm of mythology before we are able to break through to reality. We remember the childhood stories we learned in grade school of his never telling a lie or of his penchant for tossing coins across a.river. After we recognize how unlike that we are, we end up with what I call the "Joe Friday" syndrome: just the facts". The latter tells us that Washington was Commander in
Chief of the Continental Army during the course of the American Revolutionary War. We further remember that at war’s end he "retired" to his plantation at Mount Vernon where he was a gentleman planter with black slaves. Finally, we recall that he came out of retirement after being unanimously selected to be the first President of the United States and being inaugurated in April of 1789. As such he is generally referred to as the "father of our country".
Being termed the "father of our country" carries a certain'symbol ism. Washington's task was to protect the newborn nation both from within and from without. During the last decade of the eighteenth century ours was a nation suffering growing pangs-- a nation made up of thirteen "children" with the kinds of sibling rivalries usually encountered within families. During those formative years domestic passions had to be juggled in search of reciprocity on the one hand while external affairs had to be addressed on the other.
Washington managed to protect the country from itself and its possible external enemies. He established a foreign policy of strict neutrality,
followed Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies and demonstrated the power
o-f the federal government in domestic affairs by suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 which arose among backwoods farmers of the Monongehela Valley of western Pennsylvania who were discontented over enforcement of the excise tax.
George Washington was the kind of person the country needed at the helm during those early years of growth. His abilities of leadership and the respect he so richly deserved from the populous dating back to the days of the war, stood him in good stead as he and others laid the foundation upon which the "holy experiment" would be based.
For his efforts, Washington is rewarded by being one of only two presidents of the United States for whom there is a national holiday: Washington for having "fathered the nation and Lincoln for keeping it together.
As we all know, providing the baste necessities of life in rearing children is not enough. Certainly, those needs must be met but there is more. A roof over one's head, food on the table, protection from harm and such are all part of basic human needs. But what of nurturing? Where does it fit in? During its infancy, the country was primarily concerned with survival. Some of the stronger nations of Europe were biting at the bit to move in and take over. Even England did not fully accept the fact of our independence and we had to go to war with her yet a second time in 1812 to remove all doubt.
By the time that war ended in 1815 the country was expanding into the old southwest of Mississippi, Alabama and those places which would later become the "Cotton Kingdom". The Louisiana Territory had been explored a dozen years earlier by Lewis and Clark and, even though it was at a snail s pace, the westward movement was underway. Those events had to do with land.
What of the people?
For the century and a half following Washington's death in 1799, the country grew to reach from ocean to ocean and from Canada to Mexico. However, during that time span the great proportion of Americans were excluded from full participation in the government. One needed to be free, male, white, at least twenty-one years old and own property in order to be extended the full rights of citizenship. In more ways than not, the domestic history of the United States for those years has to do with the struggle of those excluded groups to gain recognition.
The events which led to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s rise to prominence came out of that struggle and they were present in more places than Montgomery, Alabama. For years, throughout the United States, the conditions under which blacks and other minorities had been forced to live had cried out for solution. For an equal number of years those pleas for redress had been ignored.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been born into those conditions in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 at a time when the Klu Klux Klan ran rampant through the country and created circumstances wherein not only were blacks subjected to Jim Crow laws and not protected by any but their very lives could be taken without the government so much as raising an eyebrow. Justice was indeed blind— it was blind to the extent that it did not even see black people as citizens.
King's early life was made worse by his growing up during the depression years of the 1930s. When the stock market crashed in 1929 it brought about not only economic ruin for the country but economic devastation for blacks who were already on the bottom of the economic totem pole and had been since the close of the American Civil War.
King was probably first made aware of the different treatment of the races when he was six years old. Two white boys with whom he had plahed were told by their mothers not to play with him anymore. He could not understand why that happened. His mother, when asked, replied only that he was "not to ever
forget that he was just as good as anyone else." When he was eight, while on a Shopping trip with his father, they were told to go to the back of the store. His father, a proud man who had undoubtedly suffered those indignities before, did not want his son to have those kinds of experiences as part of his introduction to democracy in America. They left the store without having made a purchase. There were many more similar incidents which occurred in his lifetime as they occurred in the lives of all other black people which painted a sordid picture of the abundance of injustices which he and other people like him had to endure. All of those events prepared him for a "rendezvous with destiny" which he did not realize awaited him.
Shortly after turning fifteen years old he graduated from high school and entered Morehouse College. It was there that he decided upon a life in the ministry. It was there, too, that he studied the philosophies of the world. Upon completion of his undergraduate degree, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. His arrival at Crozer placed him in an environment unlike any in which he had ever lived-integration. He had a great deal of difficulty adjusting. There were no problems with his white classmates. The problems were a result of the way in which he had been progra-ed after nineteen years of living in an oppressive, stagnant and demeaning society. He managed to overcome those difficulties and complete the degree. From there it was on to Boston University where he would recieve the Ph.D.. meet his future wife, and decide against taking a position with large, financially secure Northern churches. He returned to the south.
December 1, 1955. That was the date that it all began-the civil rights movement. On a relatively quiet street corner in Montgomery, Alabama Which had been the first capital of the Confederacy almost a hundred years prior. A hundred years earlier Rosa Parks would have probably been a slave. That day, that December, in 1955, she had been technically a slave and, somehow, whe had' looked through the veil and glimpsed freedom. Things could never be the same.
By refusing to give up her seat on a city bus, Rosa Parks ignited that civil rights movement. King, who had arrived at Montgomery less than a year earlier, was selected to lead the ensuing bus boycott. He had not planned his life to follow that course. He had planned to be a minister as his father had been but one who would shy away from the "foot stomping" and lean more in the direction of sermons based on the philosophy of theology and drawing from Aristotle, Socrates, Galileo, Rousseau, Locke, Hegel and others. He appreciated such concepts as "strength through struggle, harmony out of pain" and he also was quite familiar with Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and understood the cause of the peaceful protest against the Fugitive Slave Laws which led to Thoreau's arrest. He had also discovered Mahatma Gandhi who, perhaps more than any other, influenced the approach to life which he would take. Tatyagraha-truth force or love force had a profound significance to him. Passive resistance was to become the force by which he would live and die.
Such utterings from a pulpit of a small Baptist church caused some white citizens to look upon him as a sort of rabble rouser while black citizens wondered silently and aloud: "Who is this guy?" or, in other phraseology: "What manner of man?"
Through his life experiences he had unknowingly been prepared for the great task of moving the "holy experiment" of 1787 closer to full realization. Many times before, the passing of the baton of freedom had been refused or dropped; lost or stolen. King accepted it and carried it and by so doing aided the United States in living up to its principles.
King and Washington were indeed different. The latter helped enable the country to grow while the former nurtured it. There are yet some who wish to belittle and demean his accomplishments. There are those who would prefer things being the way they were during "the good 1ol days". There are some who wish to believe that one race is superior to others. Fortunately most Americans have grown up and realize that the primary reason for whatever differences, there might be in
-6- attainments has been due to racism and discrimination. Given an equal opportunity to succeed, success becomes more likely. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped change all that.
Perhaps more than anything else, being born when he was, at the place where he was born, being denied the right to enter public libraries, being forced to attend inferior schools, not coming from a tradition of education, having to struggle for every inch of advancement that he made, graduating from a substandard high school at the age of fifteen, completing an undergraduate degree at nineteen, a masters degree before he was twenty-two and a Ph.D. before his twenty-sixth birthday illustrates quite well what is possible when opportunity is there.
During the week leading up to his first nationally recognized birthday, many celebrations took place around America; Most of these, along with the "die hard" places, were reported in media. As I looked from town to townnorth, south, east and west I saw something which I had rarely seen before during the celebration of other hoiidays--large numbers of integrated Americans celebrating a common event. I do not mean merely sitting along the sidelines watching or being a member of a marching band that is segregated. I mean integration.
Years ago people used to ask, when a black male child was born: "Is you the one?" The question had to do with a savior who would deliver the people out of bondage and oppression. The answer, apparently, was always in the negative. On January 20, 1929, once again the question was asked in the King household. Without their knowing it, the answer was in the affirmative.
Roosevelt Fitzgerald, Director Ethnic Studies