There was a time when the aspiration of most Black Americans was either sports or music, as other vocations were closed or limited at best. As the old saying goes, if life deals you lemons, make lemonade. So, Blacks like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Berry Gordy ran with what they had to work with.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the importance of instilling pride in the black communities just as Justice Thurgood Marshall did preceding Dr. King’s rise in the civil rights movement. Marshall – who was called “Mr. Civil Rights” – would invite blacks down to the courthouse to witness him looking whites in the eye (a no-no at the time) and questioning them unabashedly.
Although Dr. King was not athletic; he was fascinated in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in major league baseball. Later, when Robinson began to speak out about civil rights, Dr. King, who by then had become the leader of the movement, supported Robinson stating, “[Robinson]… a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” He also said, “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
Motown founder Berry Gordy recalled when Dr. King visited his home in Detroit, he wasn’t too keen on his non-violent campaign. It was counter-intuitive for Gordy, a former boxer, to turn the other cheek; but he understood the strategy. Of that encounter Gordy said, “Dr. King told me that my music was really about social integration while he was trying to bring about intellectual and political integration.” Motown released two spoken-word albums of Dr. King’s speeches: “The Great March To Freedom” delivered to a crowd of 200,000 in Detroit, and “The Great March On Washington” where he delivered the historical “I have a dream” speech. Dr. King was on Motown’s payroll.
Dr. King and Muhammad Ali had a strong relationship according to FBI records, but it was kept private due to Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam that was shunned by supporters of the civil rights movement. However, the two appeared in public together at a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Ali’s hometown. When Dr. King faced criticism for speaking out on the war in Vietnam, he cited Ali saying, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all Black and Brown and poor victims of the same system of oppression.” Ali had lost his championship title as a conscientious objector to the war.
Also, when track stars Tommie Smith, Lee Evans and John Carlos raised their fists for human rights at the 1968 Olympic games, in their defense against public outrage, Dr. King said, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle … No one looking at these demands can ignore the truth of them. Freedom always demands sacrifice and … they have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to be men and the United States of America have deprived us of our manhood, of our dignity and our native worth, and consequently we’re going to stand up and make the sacrifices’ …”
Four days after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill calling for a federal holiday in Dr. King’s honor. Motown’s Stevie Wonder played a significant role which included a Dr. King tribute song he wrote and recorded titled “Happy Birthday,” which was released as a single in 1981 on Motown Records.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday is now observed in all 50 states.
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based contributing writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand” and “Book To The Future” (Amazon); two insightful books that speak to our moral conscience in times like these.