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As we commemorate the life and death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I will use the time to reflect upon my own good fortunes to have been in the presence of many great civil rights leaders over my political career and to revisit MLK’s writings and speeches.

Daddy King 450

I was privileged to meet his father, affectionally known as Daddy King, in the spring of 1976 while campaigning for Jimmy Carter in an AME church in Mount Vernon, New York. While raised Catholic in the 1960s and having had the hallowed position of altar boy when the mass was in Latin, incense flowed, and the Northeast Philadelphia church I belonged to was graced by huge vaulted ceilings making a microphone unnecessary, the somberness of those services were absolutely overwhelmed by the joyous explosion and energy of attending the celebration in a black church.

On that night forty-two years ago there were three white people in church, the Deputy Mayor of New Rochelle, New York, a State Senator from Decatur, Georgia and a 22-year old kid from Philly who did not even own a suit (see pictur). After the celebration concluded, we were all invited to join Daddy King behind the altar to chat. His sermon was unlike any I had ever heard and one could not help but feel uplifted by the entire experience. What particularly struck me as inspirational was the active involvement of the attendees.

I had just finished my final semester at college and served as an intern in the Georgia State Senate where I had occasion to spend real, extended, quality time with another icon of the Civil Rights movement, State Senator Julian Bond. He would join the Senator I was working for and I at lunch in the State cafeteria across the street from the Capitol several times a week.

I shall never forget one day early in the ’76 session when the legislature celebrated the bicentennial of the nation. Many elderly, gray-haired, gentlemen farmer legislators were adorned with Revolutionary War garb (long coats, three-cornered hats, wigs, spats, you get the idea). Outside the Senate chamber stood Sen. Bond in a drab olive-colored suit. While we were witnessing the rather bizarre spectacle, a witty journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution approached and asked the Senator why he was not dressed appropriately. Without the slightest hesitation he answered, “Because, Mr. Houck, I could not find a pair of chains that fit.”

One day during the ’76 session comedian and activist Dick Gregory came to the Capitol and spoke to a group of young, progressive minded legislators and staff (remember this was right after Watergate and a new breed of young legislators began to populate the legislature). Later that evening I was invited to spend an evening at dinner with Sen. Bond, my boss, and Mr. Gregory. It was a fabulous introduction to this Yankee of the Black struggle in the South.

I was also present in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1979 when Ray Charles performed “Georgia On My Mind” as it was proclaimed the official State song. This occurring in a body which had in 1966 denied to seat then-Representative Julian Bond because of his endorsement of an anti-Vietnam war statement by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bond was SNCC’s communications director. Eventually the Supreme Court decided in Bond v. Floyd that he should be seated.

On election night in 2000 I was working in Philadelphia for the Gore campaign when I was tasked with driving a van to the airport with my friend, actor Sam Waterston, to pick up the Reverend Jesse Jackson and escort him to a rally in North Philadelphia at a subway stop in a largely African-American section of the city where he would be on a flatbed truck with Mayor John Street in order to persuade those on their way home from work to vote. During the van ride, we were escorted by four police cruisers, lights and sirens blaring, the Rev worked several phones to radio stations around the nation imploring listeners to vote. His final admonition each time was, “if Nelson Mandela could wait 27 years to vote, you can wait an hour in line.” Portland, St. Louis, Orlando, at least twelve different phone calls in rapid fire succession provided an abject lesson in get-out-the-vote politicking right up until the polls closed.

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston I had the honor of escorting the members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on stage forty years after they had been denied to be credentialed delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston I had the honor of escorting the members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on stage forty years after they had been denied to be credentialed delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. The MFDP had been formed to protest the traditional Mississippi Democratic Party’s exclusion of black delegates.

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Dr. King told President Johnson that he would "do everything in my power to urge (The MFDP) being seated as the only democratically constituted delegation from Mississippi." King also voiced his support to Congress, "I pledge myself and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the fullest support of the challenges of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party and call upon all Americans to join with me in this commitment.”

These experiences have influenced me greatly and are particularly poignant on this 50th anniversary of King’s death. I had occasion to reread Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail," recounting his response to church leaders who were pleading with him via the press to call off the 1963 nonviolent direct action demonstrations in what Dr. King had called the most segregated city in America. In the letter Dr. King stated “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In the letter he also draws the distinction between just and unjust laws, writing he “would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

He also writes in the letter how “nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek…it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends…it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”

He ends his letter by hoping “that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

In the summer of 1977 I took a road trip with some grad school buddies through the South and we walked across the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the site of Bloody Sunday in March 1965. We then retraced the route of the march on the Capitol in Montgomery where Dr. King, invoking the words of 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker, proclaimed “the arc of a moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

Lastly, during the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York City on the evening that Jimmy Carter accepted the nomination I stood on the convention floor and joined in a moving tribute to civil rights by a packed Madison Square Garden in singing the gospel song and later protest anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

Thank you Dr. King for your dedication to the pursuit of nonviolent action in seeking equality and human dignity for all regardless of race, creed or color. Thanks for allowing me to experience the trail that you carved through the wilderness of segregation. We can still learn from him today.


Lance Simmens