Maurice McDavid has come to the Rotary Club of DeKalb a couple of times around Martin Luther King Jr. Day to speak to Rotarians about King’s legacy.
McDavid, a dean at DeKalb High School and a minister at United Pentecostal Church of DeKalb, is a fine speaker and always leaves me thinking a little differently about the legacy of one of the great civil rights leaders of all time.
King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963 is as iconic a piece of American history as the preamble to the Constitution or the opening of the Declaration of Independence. The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he was arrested for marching in protest of segregated lunch counters and hiring practices, and many other works of King’s life are instructive in how we as Americans can and should view and change our society.
Speaking to our club Monday, McDavid, who lives in DeKalb with his wife and three children, pointed out that the way we regard King now is very different from the way he was seen by contemporary Americans.
“Much as today we think about and celebrate King as an American hero, in his time, King was seen as an extremist,” McDavid said.
The FBI had him under surveillance. Days before his death, the pointedly conservative Chicago Tribune editorial board noted March 30, 1968, “We think the time has arrived when the country must ask itself how much more it is going to put up with from this incendiarist.”
(After King’s death, the Tribune said that there should be a day of mourning, not for King particularly, but for the death of morality in America.)
“They perceived him as an extremist, and they perceived him as a potential threat,” McDavid said.
McDavid said that King was extreme – in his faith, in his methods of forcing America to pay attention, in his dedication to making America and its people acknowledge and live up to its principles that all men are created equal.
McDavid also noted that King was extreme in his commitment to nonviolence, even as his homes were bombed, as leaders around him were killed, as marchers were attacked with fire hoses and billy clubs.
“King found something that was worth fighting for; he found something that was worth dying for,” McDavid said. “… So he was an extremist, and he got it done.”
Some may remember when society was segregated – not in the unspoken ways that it remains so now, but outwardly, unapologetically, forcibly segregated.
What we may have forgotten is that there were many at the time who wished to defend that order, in the North and the South, in newspapers and on TV, in state capitals around the country and in Washington, D.C.
Those who seek to change society today often are labeled extremists, too. Hopefully, we will be celebrating one of them 40 years from now. If we do, that will mean that America had a new hero who showed us the way – as King did until his death in 1968.
• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.