The national holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. is an appropriate recognition of his contribution on many levels to our national life.
It is a profound reminder that the long struggle to overcome the consequences of slavery – and the racism it has spawned for many generations since – has been a war with many casualties and many heroes.
Recognizing and honoring King as the pivotal leader he was during a crucial period of that struggle is a way of pointing to a guiding vision to which we all in our better moments aspire. He was truly a hero in the best sense of the word.
But it is consistent with his philosophy of community and his theology of reconciliation that this day is also a recognition of heroism in all of its many expressions.
In his writings and speeches, King was frequent in his mention of those who had inspired him to be faithful to his calling – Benjamin Mays, Henry David Thoreau, Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, E.S. Brightman and L. Harold Dewolf.
These were people whose lives and writings fueled and gave shape to King’s thinking about justice and the human spirit.
Beyond these influences, it was the passionate commitment of the people who were willing to put their jobs, their families’ safety and even their lives on the line in demonstrations against the injustice of racial oppression that both humbled and inspired him to push against the odds of powerful resistance in an effort to call American society to “live up to its creed.”
For King, the heroes of the civil rights movement were the unnamed thousands who endured the taunts of counter demonstrators, pain of police nightsticks, threats of violence in the night to their neighborhoods and uncertainty that their efforts might not prevail.
For every John Lewis, Ruby Bridges, Hamilton Holmes and Sam Oni – true heroes all – there were thousands of others whose heroism was just as real.
January’s holiday is a tribute to all of them. King would be the first to declare it so.
We might be surprised to find that some of those heroes live close by, holding close the memories of those days of challenge and faithfulness. There are many stories yet to share in enriching ways.
Ask around among people you know. You might not look or listen long before discovering an “I was there!”
One such discovery occurred for my wife and me a few years ago.
We met and became friends with the school principal who had volunteered his school to be the first one to desegregate in Henry County, Georgia, after the courts called a halt to their delay in complying with the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954.
His story was one of the typical massive and abusive resistance in the community, and the fear and courage of the families who allowed their children to be the pioneers for a different kind of future for themselves.
On the rare occasions when he and his wife talked about that time, he was quick to point out that the real heroes of that experience were the 13 children who were the first ones to enter the previously white school.
Shortly before his death in 2012, he gave permission for their story to be preserved in a children’s book.
His hope was that it would enable children of a later period to appreciate the courage of some people in their grandparents’ generation who were part of righting a wrong that would be unimaginable to them.
This recently published book, “Mr. Tuck and the 13 Heroes,” tells their story. For full disclosure, the author, John Harris, is our son, and the illustrator, Sophie Harris, is our granddaughter.
The commemorations of this month, both in remembrance and in appropriate service, constitute part of our stewardship of a sacred legacy.
We all stand on the shoulders of countless and unnamed heroes whose courage and vision for a better future have created possibility for us.
Let’s hope that our shoulders can be broad enough and strong enough to preserve that legacy for those who follow us.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles about local churches and associations participating in MLK Jr. Day observances and engaging in racial reconciliation initiatives.
Previous articles in the series are: