January 17, 2005

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

With scores of reporters and TV cameramen recording what happened, the firemen turned on their hoses, which exploded with a noise like machine-gun fire and sent columns of water crashing into children and adults alike, knocking them down, ripping their clothes, smashing them against the sides of buildings, sweeping them back into the street, driving them crying and bloodied into the park. When Negro bystanders hurled bricks and bottles in retaliation, Connor unleashed the dogs. They charged into the Negroes’ ranks with fangs bared, lunging wildly at running children and biting three severely. In a cacophony of snarling dogs and screaming people, the march column disintegrated and children and adults all fled back to the church.

--Stephen Oates, Let The Trumpet Sound

A shrill cry of terror, unlike any that had passed through a TV set, rose up as the troopers lumbered forward, stumbling sometimes on the fallen bodies... Periodically the top of a helmeted head emerged from the cloud, followed by a club on the upswing. The club and the head would disappear into the cloud of gas and another club would bob up and down.

Unhuman. No other word can describe the motions... My wife, sobbing, turned and walked away, sing, "I can't look any more..."

--Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement

Others today have been linking to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words and papers, which are indeed well worth reading. And over at DailyKos, Armando's lament that "we have no Martin Luther King for our time" is elegant and well-taken. It's true that without King, the vastly disparate outcries against racial injustice might never have found such an intense focal point in the 1950s and 60s. For that alone, he is remembered. In hindsight, many of the vast achievements of the Civil Rights movement seem precarious and fragile and entirely contingent on historical events and people. What if JFK hadn't been shot? What if Sen. Richard Russell had never changed his mind about filibustering the Civil Rights Act? What if King had been murdered a decade earlier? etc. etc. etc.

But in another sense, the civil rights movement really was inevitable, and for that we have to thank the unnamed hundreds of thousands described above, who simply marched, who stood up for what they believe, who were dashed against the sides of buildings "crying and bloodied", and who did it all without any realistic expectation that it could make a difference. They could only trust, as Martin Luther King told the marchers in Montgomery, that "truth crushed to the earth will rise again." It's still completely and utterly awe-inspiring.
-- Brad Plumer 5:20 PM || ||