Opinion: Martin Luther King Jr. taught us to take action in face of injustice

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John Huie
John Huie

This is an excerpt from a letter John Huie wrote to his family.

Dear Nathaniel, Peter, Andrea, Olivia, Zachary, Ehrin, Jessica, Mildred, Adaezia, Tristan, Lori, Lee, Jaan,

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave all of us an example of courage and moral leadership that shook up our world during his 38 years of life. Our segregated country changed because he lived courageously. He gave voice to all who suffered the legacy of slavery and the perpetuation of hatred, segregation and discrimination of all kinds. We now have the opportunity and the responsibility to continue that difficult work in every way we can. Let’s start a family wave that sweeps across the country.

King led non-violent marches in my hometown of Albany, Georgia, in 1961-62 and spent months in jail there. In December of 1961 I came home to for 10 days on my way to military assignment in France. During those 10 days, I watched the peaceful marches of hundreds of Black young people protesting for an end to segregation on Albany’s city buses. The marchers followed King from church across the Flint River into the middle of town on Pine Street lined with white policemen slapping their truncheons. King and the marchers stopped in front of the Albany Courthouse and kneeled to pray. Refusing to disperse, many were arrested.

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When they appeared in the jam-packed city court the next day for “disturbing the peace,” I was there sitting in the front row on the white side of the courtroom. The white judge, Abner Israel, was my neighbor. His daughters were close friends of my sisters. The charges were read. “Not guilty” pleas were entered.

Suddenly two young Black students got up from their side of the courtroom, moved quickly across the aisle and sat down on the white side. Proceedings stopped. Time stood still. My heart pounded. For a moment I felt the impulse to take a seat in the Black section of the small courtroom. I knew by making that move I would create news-making havoc and what the courageous John Lewis came later to call “good trouble.”

I began to rise. As I hesitated, four beefy Albany policemen pulled the Black students out of their seats to hustle them out of the courtroom into jail. I had witnessed the remarkable moral courage of two Black students, and my own spineless passivity.

Looking back today, I regret that I hesitated, no matter the consequences. Do I have good excuses for my hesitation? Of course. I would have embarrassed my parents. I would have lost my ROTC commission in the Army. I would have been jailed. We white people always have good excuses for not putting our lives of comfort on the line.

Two years later in August 1963, I came home from Europe where I had served in integrated U.S. Army units in France and Germany. After one meeting of the Army Reserve at the Federal Armory in Albany, a dozen of us reservists in uniform, including Black soldiers, gathered at the Davis Brothers Restaurant for coffee and fellowship.

Within 10 minutes, several hefty members of the Albany Police Department told us we had to disburse because of a city ordinance prohibiting integration. We grumbled and shuffled out of the restaurant. I said to a fellow Black soldier, “When is this crap going to stop?” He shot back: “Man, this crap is here to stay. This is Albany, Georgia. We been living with it all our lives.”

While at Emory University in Atlanta in the early ‘60s, I occasionally attended Ebenezer Baptist Church to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. preach. Unforgettable passion and power. On Easter Sunday 1964, I shook his hand and thanked him for his unforgettable sermon and for his courageous efforts in my hometown.

Painfully and slowly, things have changed in Albany and in the country. King’s April 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" should be posted in every school, church and statehouse. King wrote: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”

In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, King told marchers, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

Can we live with our conscience and stand still, do nothing? Change starts at home. Do what you can where you are. Make good trouble. Stand up and join the struggle for what is right so that the youngest members of our family can look forward to a better, more humane and just world than the one we inherited.

Love to all, Dad/Grandpa

John C. Huie and his wife, Jaan Ferree, live in Asheville. He is a life coach and the former director of the North Carolina Outward Bound School.

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Opinion: Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to take uncomfortable action