Today the country celebrates what would have been the 92nd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A towering figure in the nation's history, he led a movement that fundamentally changed the America that we live in today. And much more work needs to be done. Yet, I can personally attest to the fact that Dr. King's leadership of the civil rights movement produced opportunities that would have been unthinkable at the time for a young black kid like me.
I met Dr. King briefly in my hometown of Orangeburg, SC, in 1964. He came to lend support to "the Movement," as we called it back then. During the 1960s, Orangeburg was a hotbed of civil rights activity primarily because of the two predominately black colleges, South Carolina State and Claflin, and their activism students. They influenced the broader African American community in Orangeburg, resulting in the continuous press for civil rights by its residents.
There always seemed to be some type of civil rights protests in Orangeburg. There were marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, or boycotts. Most of the demonstrators were college students, but it included all black Orangeburg citizenry segments, including older folks and younger students. For the first time on September 29th, 1963, I was arrested as we protested for the desegregation of public accommodations and public schools' integration in compliance with Brown v Board of Education. I was twelve years old at the time.
Dr. King's visit to Orangeburg culminated with a moving, rousing speech at the Trinity Methodist Church across the street from both black colleges. He urged us to keep the faith, told us that our cause was just and that we would ultimately overcome. I was inspired and committed to staying the course as a foot soldier to fight for our civil rights.
I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a teenager and became an active volunteer. Later that spring, I became 14 and got my restricted driver's license, which allowed me to drive from 6 am to 6 pm. With new mobility, I joined Project SCOPE, an SCLC program, which focused on registering blacks in Orangeburg county to vote. There were only two days of registration, August 2nd, and 3rd at the county courthouse, and our goal was to maximize the opportunity for our folks to register to vote.
On the first day of registration with three county registrars, we logged over 600 people registered to vote. The next day, the county only provided one registrar—voter registration suppression in full force. After the announcement that it was five o'clock and the courthouse was now closed, leaving many still in the registration line, we staged a sit-in and were arrested for trespassing on government property. This was my second arrest and first night in the Orangeburg County jail.
The next month, I would join the twelve other students who were the first to integrate Orangeburg High, complete with a police escort on my first day of school. It was a turbulent experience, complete with a host of challenges and indignities but one that brought the opportunities we had fought for so hard. I would become the first African American from South Carolina to attend the US Air Force Academy, which put me on a track that fundamentally changed my life.
And that's why each year, I pause, reflect, and give thanks to all members of "the Movement" and his leadership on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.
A QUOTE TO CONSIDER
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.