Last week’s Martin Luther King Day of Service honored the memory and messages of the slain civil rights leader. But recalling King’s words, getting together for meals and putting in time to help the food cupboard were only part of what this holiday does and should represent.
Dr. King was the individual who so eloquently expressed the hopes and dreams of people who had been enslaved and, even with the formality of their freeing, who suffered discrimination for centuries. There are others, however -- thousands of them -- who must be remembered on this January holiday as well.
They are the athletes who entered the world of white sports.
Jackie Robinson became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and through his courage and strength of character opened the pathway for thousands of young men who had grown up with talent but were barred from the major leagues. They had remain in the Negro League and had to travel to games in old buses. When they arrived in towns for games they had to stay in “colored only” hotels and could eat only in “colored“ restaurants.
Jesse Owens was the fastest runner in the 1936 Olympics, but Hitler refused to recognize him, as did presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman according to historical writings. One can only imagine the taunting he endured throughout his career because he was black.
Those who come to honor King on his day must also honor the hardworking and dedicated students who attended the historically black colleges and universities through the years. Most of these students did not go to school on their dads’ rich bank account. They worked nights, attended classes in the day and went on to successful careers, often overcoming unimaginable barriers and discrimination.
The students of the 1960s, many of them the sons and daughters of prosperous white businessmen, traveled to Mississippi and other hotbeds of racism to help blacks get registered to vote. Many among them who were attacked by and even killed by white supremacists. Still, they did not retreat for their goals, and to this day have passed on their message of nonviolence and equality to their children and grandchildren. .
To honor King on his day is also to honor the directors, producers and leaders in the arts who opened the door to black actors, artists and musicians. It is to honor the hipsters of the 1940s and 1950s who embraced the musical culture of urban blacks.
Closer to home, to honor King is to honor the late Unionville School teacher Carl Fitzcharles who, in the 1950s when he arranged a field trip for his Boy Scout troop, was told he couldn’t bring “the black one.” He told the prospective hosts, “If I can’t bring the whole troop, I’m not coming.”
It is necessary also to honor the late Mabel Thompson, who started the CommUNITY breakfast. She saw to it that her son, Philip, could swim in the pool at Lenape Park and was given the quality education that whites took for granted. Throughout her life she stood up for civil rights. Add to that honor Mabel’s mother, Mrs. Latta, who told the manager of the movie theater in Kennett Square, “I’m quite comfortable down here,” when she was told to go upstairs and sit with the other black folks in the balcony.
Honor the black churches which, through the years, reached out to their members in need and still do. And honor the large network of Underground Railroad activists who risked their own lives and properties to help escaping slaves.
It is right and good that we celebrate Martin Luther King. But it must not be forgotten that to recognize this day is to remember the thousands -- perhaps millions -- who have also fought bravely for his cause.