Martin Luther King Jr.: Don’t let his sacrifice be for naught

Peter Simon was 16 when he took this photograph of Martin Luther King, who had come to speak at his high school. "I didn't know anything about Black, White, red or gold," he told us. "But I went up to him after to thank him, and shake his hand, and he reached over and hugged me. He changed my life that day."

Back in the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting the Island, my Aunt Dorothy came banging on my door. Dr. King was staying on New York Avenue. opposite DeBettencourt’s garage. She had arranged to have my son baptized by Dr. King.

I refused. We were not Baptists. We had a very nice religion, which we liked very much. Secretly, I was thinking, “What’s so hot about M.L.K.? He is pretty much middle-of-the-road, he’s not like Malcolm X, he is just another bombastic Southern preacher, the kind that Richie Pryor made fun of. He gets the people worked up emotionally, and then wimps out by sticking with the establishment; plus, the man has a deep Southern accent — how smart could he be?”

Before you start clucking your teeth and telling me how stupid I am, think back a bit.

Dr. King totally supported President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society. Johnson escalated this huge war in Vietnam, and King didn’t say diddly-squat about it. Young black men were being drafted for a war which was basically about “American interests.” “American interests” turned out to be American corporate interests, which totally excluded the young men who were giving up their lives.

Then, in 1967, King gave a speech about the war and American involvement in it. He questioned why we were involved. He gave that speech condemning the war at Riverside Church in New York City. If I had not been there, I would never have known about it. The press barely covered it.

The Johnson administration dropped him like a hot potato after that. King talked about U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia as imperialism. He was among the first of mainstream activists to say that the Vietnam War acted as a shield behind which the United States government could hide when it took away funding from inner-city programs that had been created specifically to aid poor urban people, especially poor African Americans.

“The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home …” he said. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

In my heart of hearts, I believe that is when “the hit” was put out on him. He never wavered from his antiwar position. He supported peace movements until the day they shot him on April 4, 1968, which was exactly one year after he gave that speech.

He became a man of principles right before my eyes. It would have been so easy to stick with the mainstream and mouth off about racial injustice, while having lunch with Lady Bird Johnson in Edgartown. When he stuck it to the corporations that controlled the government at that time, he knew the end would be coming soon.

Are there any principles you believe in so much that you would risk your life for them?

I know that I was wrong for marginalizing Dr. King because of his Southern accent and bravado in speech. I also know that I was right when I fell in love with him for being so brave as to turn against the hand that fed him.

During the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, there were so many injustices that we called ourselves the assassination generation. There were riots, demonstrations, and wars that made us so angry we felt as if we could not sit still. Regular everyday people were so angry about social injustices that we would put ourselves in grave danger just to make a moral point. It wasn’t a matter of making a choice; one simply saw only one side. It was like wading in the water at the Inkwell; before you knew it, you were so far out that you were swimming. We swam as far as our ethical DNA would go. When we turned around to look at the shore, it was beyond our grasp. We swam so far out that if you were a student of principles at Kent State University, you could get shot by your own Army.

So let me ask you again: What principle do you hold so dear to your heart that you feel it is worth dying for?

Would you smuggle slaves from the South, despite the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850? Would you hide Jews in your basement, knowing that your life was at stake? Just how much does the right to vote mean to you? Is it worth it to risk your life for a labor union?

Martin Luther King Jr. was no fool. He could tell from the daily death threats that his life was always in danger. He knew that J. Edgar Hoover was doing his best to entrap him. He loved his family — nobody wants to die — yet he remained true to his core principles, the principles that would cost him his life. The principles that make our lives easier today. Would you do the same?

Today our demonstrations are fairly peaceful; protestors allow themselves to be searched and put into designated corrals during demonstrations. They demonstrate against political parties, against disenfranchisement, and even for animal rights. A year ago, we women went to Washington right after the election and protested our hearts out, all very peacefully. It didn’t bring about much change, but they didn’t bring out the tear gas either.

Many of us gripe, but as long as we have our plasma televisions, a job with a pension, and a car, we’re lulled into a sense of thinking that things are getting better.

Is America getting better?

Are our causes dwindling?

Things seem to be shifting. Obama was elected, the Williams sisters won every title known to man; we had a poignant sense of hope.

And we were proud of ourselves. We got rid of the draft, we burned our bras, legal segregation was now illegal. We had been young and reckless; we had no regrets.

Walmart allowed us to “chillax”; now we could afford our dreams.

Many of us participated in the civil rights movement either passively or aggressively. The list of all the legendary heroes of the movement goes on and on. Then we sat down and took a nap. Did we really think the people were going to take up the torch?

While we were napping, the alt right was using our format of demonstrations for their racist purposes, citing diversity as white genocide.

Isis grows exponentially daily. What is it that they find so moving as to risk their lives? According to “60 Minutes,” America has twice as many white terrorists as Islamic; what do they find so moving as to risk their lives?  

The alt right offers military training to lonely maladjusted young men in the woods of Midwestern states. When they complete their training, they don’t form gangs, they get jobs as policemen and state troopers. Could that be a reason why unarmed, innocent, black men are disproportionately murdered by the police? Seventy-four percent of extremist-related crimes are carried out by the right wing. The silent majority seems to be finding its voice; a voice for polarization and blatant racism.

And then came Charlottesville.

Charlottesville woke us up. It shook the complacency off of us and made us realize that the struggle was far from over. We still have something to fight for.

When Heather Hyer went to Charlottesville, she did not go to give up her life but she did. Will you?

We must participate. America may be getting better, but we still have a long way to go. We can’t afford to get soft.

Dr. King paved the way. He stuck with his principles knowing that his life was in danger. Don’t let his sacrifice be for naught. Do something that will make America even greater.

M.L.K. Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Heather Hyer: They will be watching us; make them proud.

Once again, my Aunt Dorothy was right. I should have let Dr. King baptize my son even if we were not Baptists. It was more about spirituality than it was about religion.

Was I wrong? Ask my son. He was 2 years old at the time, and hasn’t spoken to me since.

Abigail McGrath is the founder of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers of poetry and social issues (which is currently looking for a new home on the Island). She created Renaissance House in memory of her mother, the poet Helene Johnson, and her aunt, Dorothy West, the novelist, both “Island” girls.


  1. Imagine my surprise finding such a wonderful and poignant piece in the mediocrity of the day! Thank you Abigail! Let’s catch up, the Renaissance House is something I dreamt of not too long ago and I’m looking to build residency in the highlands. I live a stones throw away. Bests. James. Email me when you can

  2. MLK was right about the Vietnam war. Too bad we haven’t (as a nation) learned from it. BTW, the blood is always the same color.

  3. This was a really nice piece until I got half way down and the ‘alternative facts’ started creeping in : “Isis grows exponentially daily” – uh no that was under the last administration, this one wiped the map with them .
    “Could that be a reason why unarmed, innocent, black men are disproportionately murdered by the police” – this is a statistic contrary to the world outside of msnbc. There is another clever little typo up there about the ‘right wing’ as opposed to the Nazi groups you are trying to describe, which absolutely deserve to be called out for the evil they are. Your writing isn’t exactly a bridge builder once you get into it.

    Our nation needs another cultural leader like mlk, who knows how to bring groups together, not further drive a wedge between them.

    • If we want to unite as a people we are going to first agree what reality exists. You are using “alternative facts” in describing ISIS. While the Iraqi military says it has liberated all of Iraq’s territory of ISIS and retaken control of the Iraqi-Syrian border, the campaign to eradicate the Islamic State took more than three years and about 25,000 coalition airstrikes. These airstrikes were organized by the US military under the leadership of the last administration.

      Your claim about the statistics surrounding the proportion of black men killed by police is incorrect. MSNBC has nothing to do with it. The statistics are widely reported. Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. While these numbers change year to year they do for the most part reflect a disproportionate disparity in the extrajudicial execution of our African-American citizens.

      Nazi groups are right wing groups. This is defined properly.

      Maybe you should turn off whatever TV or radio loudmouths that have made you so partisan and confused and then, just maybe, you will start to learn how to connect with your fellow citizen. Most media news outlets (from Fox News to MSNBC) are designed to make people make up their minds quickly and cling to it intractably. Careful deliberation of the facts is not the purpose of the broadcasts. This is clearly part of the problem in our nation. You didn’t even bother to check the validity of your own opinions before attacking the well known facts of the subject matter.

      As for finding leadership who can bring us together… we first will need a people capable of being wrong, and smart enough to elect leadership that is nearly the opposite of our current administration. Both long shots if you ask me!!

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