Ancestor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Tenacity of Roots
Updated: Jan 19
By Rodney K. Strong J.D.
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Several years ago, at a family reunion in Memphis, I met a cousin who was born and raised in Chicago and had never been there before. As I discussed my experiences growing up on Memphis and visiting the family farm in Atoka, Tennessee, he said:
“Cuz, you close to the root!"
Twelve miles away, in Memphis where I grew up, we are close to the root. We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because we lived through the dark days when “hope unborn had died”
We are close to the root, not only physically but also generationally. Both of our paternal great- grandfathers were born enslaved in Virginia. After he became President in 1829, Andrew Jackson was able to push the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress. Native Americans were marched west of the Mississippi River along what has come to be known as the “Trail of Tears.” This was followed by “plantation capitalists” who claimed the land and force-marched thousands of enslaved Africans to the land formerly held by the native people. Our own great- grandfathers were force marched from Virginia to western Tennessee by the enslavers, i.e., "plantation capitalists."
Our grandfather, Mertus Sylvester Strong, was born as an enslaved African, in 1860. In 1857,The Supreme Court of the United States declared in Dred Scott v. Sanford that Africans, whether enslaved or free, were not citizens of the United States. This case was a proximate cause of the American Civil War. In 1868, after the conclusion of the bloodiest war in American history, and subsequent to the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution, Africans in the United States became citizens.
Our grandfather was educated at a Freedman’s School in the basement of a Presbyterian Church in Tipton County, Tennessee. He went on to become an educator. He taught and was an elementary school principal in the Shelby County Tennessee Schools for 51 years. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.
Our grandfather was always paid less than white educators and retired with no pension because the Tennessee schools did not allow African Americans to participate in the pension plan. He and our grandmother sent two sons to fight in World War II. My father, Claude Strong, spent four years fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. Our uncle, John Harrison Strong, earned a bronze star fighting in Italy. Yet when they returned to America, they couldn’t even walk in the front door of a cheap diner in Memphis and buy a cup of coffee.
Our parents paid taxes, but they couldn’t send us to the University of Tennessee.
We couldn’t use the downtown library.
We couldn’t sit on the front of a city bus.
We had to sit in the balcony at the segregated theaters.
We could only go to the zoo on Tuesday and the Fairgrounds Amusement Park on Thursday.
We attended racially segregated, under-funded schools staffed by Black teachers who were
paid less than their white counterparts.
We were born in racially segregated hospitals.
When we got sick, we were sent to racially segregated hospitals.
When our people died, they were buried in racially segregated cemeteries.
We grew up close to the root.
This is not "history" for me or for many of us. This is our lived experience.
Our Parents' generation led the fight for full citizenship for African Americans. Thanks to the sacrifices of our parents' generation, and the ultimate sacrifice of the martyrs of the movement, our generation saw public policy change in Memphis and in the nation. During World War II, the African American press, led by the Pittsburgh Courier, started the “Double V Campaign”, calling for victory over fascism at home and abroad.
The NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall, began to win legal victories culminating in the Brown v Board decision which overturned legal school segregation.
The Montgomery Bus boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the beginning of a mass movement for social change.
These and other memorable milestones, such as those listed listed below, are familiar to students of American history. They make up what historians now call the "Classic Civil Rights Movement":
The Little Rock School desegregation crisis
The Freedom Rides led by James Farmer
The Sit In movement led by college students
The Birmingham campaign
The assassination of Medgar Evers
The 1963 March on Washington
The murder of the four little girls in Birmingham
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama
The 1965 Voting Rights Act
The March Against Fear
The Black Power Movement
The Chicago Open Housing and Economic Justice Campaign
Dr. King’s “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” Speech at Riverside Church in New York City
The Poor People’s Campaign
The Memphis Sanitation Strike
The Assassination of Dr. King in Memphis
The Passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, President Emeritus of Morehouse College delivered the Eulogy at the funeral of Dr. King. Those of us who heard it will never, ever, forget it. It has gone down in history as one of the greatest orations in the twentieth century. In his most famous passage Dr. Mays said:
“Surely this man was called of God to do this work. If Amos and Micah were prophets in the eighth century, B.C., Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet in the twentieth century. If Isaiah was called of God to prophesy in his day, Martin Luther was called of God to prophesy in his time. If Hosea was sent to preach love and forgiveness centuries ago, Martin Luther was sent to expound the doctrine of nonviolence and forgiveness in the third quarter of the twentieth century. If Jesus was called to preach the Gospel to the poor, Martin Luther King Jr. fits that designation. If a prophet is one who does not seek popular causes to espouse, but rather the causes he thinks are right, Martin Luther qualified on that score.
No! He was not ahead of his time. No man is ahead of his time. Every man is within his star, each in his time. Each man must respond to the call of God in his lifetime and not in somebody else’s time.”
No man or woman is ahead of his or her time, we each must respond to the call in our own time. Are we prepared to respond to the call of our time?
Never has there been a greater challenge to the realization of a multi-racial democracy, what Dr. King called the "beloved community," than there is at this moment. The forces of white supremacy and authoritarianism are on the march. The conservative cable news talking heads are filling the airways with white nationalist bile you used to find only in the ugliest places on the internet.
The great state of Tennessee passed a law outlawing what its sponsor calls “Critical Race Theory”. It passed with no Democratic votes and no African American votes. If a school principal in my home state invited me to speak and I told my family history as I have today, he would probably be fired and lose his license to teach in Tennessee. This is the state that was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
The first complaint under this new law was filed by a woman named Robin Steenman, Chair of the Williamson County Tennessee chapter of Moms for Liberty. According to The Guardian, her complaint alleges:
"The group took issue with several books adapted for younger readers on topics including King’s leadership of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the integration of schools in California by the activist Sylvia Mendez and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an all-white primary school in Louisiana."
“The classroom books and teacher manuals reveal both explicit and implicit Anti-American, Anti-White and Anti-Mexican teaching,” the complaint claimed. “The relentless nature of how these divisive stories are taught, the lack of historical context and difference in perspective, and the manipulative pedagogy all work together to amplify and sow feelings of resentment, shame of one’s skin color, and/or fear.”
The complaint also alleged that the curriculum “implies to second-grade children that people of color continue to be oppressed by an oppressive ‘angry, vicious, scary, mean, loud, violent, [rude], and [hateful]’ white population’ .“
This is the white supremacist playbook across the nation today.
In November of 2020 a multi-racial coalition elected Joe Biden and on January 5th of 2021, we elected two Democratic United States Senators, one African American and one Jewish in my adopted state of Georgia.
The day after the Georgia Senatorial Election Runoff, January 6, 2021, the election of Joe Biden was to be certified. Instead, we had a coup attempt.
Recently, Vice President Kamala Harris had this to say:
“Certain dates echo throughout history, including dates that instantly remind all who have lived through them -- where they were and what they were doing when our democracy came under assault. Dates that occupy not only a place on our calendars, but a place in our collective memory. December 7th, 1941. September 11th, 2001. And January 6th, 2021.” “…the strength of democracy is the rule of law."
The strength of democracy is the principle that everyone should be treated equally, that elections should be free and fair, that corruption should be given no quarter.
The strength of democracy is that it empowers the people. And the fragility of democracy is this: that if we are not vigilant, if we do not defend it, democracy simply will not stand; it will falter and fail.”
Today, in Georgia and across the nation, we face the same white supremacist playbook we faced at the end of the 19th century. The Georgia Legislature passed a voter suppression bill with no Democratic and no African American votes. It has been dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0”.
Last week in Atlanta, standing in the same spot Dr. Mays stood to deliver the Eulogy for Dr. King, President Joe Biden had this to say:
“Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion. It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.”
We have come full circle and now the question is one each of you must answer, what side am I on?
Am I on the side of white supremacy or the "beloved community"?
Will ignorant racists be able to suppress speech about African American history?
Will African American voters be disenfranchised again?
The answer lies with us!
As Dr. Mays said, no man is ahead of his time.
Our time is now!
Will WE answer the call?
* Fast forward to the 2 hour mark to view the speech by Atty. Rodney K. Strong.
Martin Luther King, Jr. : Enough is Enough (Documentary)
Readings Recommended by Omni-U Virtual University
Ancestor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Why We Can't Wait"
"Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
"Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community"
"Martin Luther King Jr's History Lessons" New Yorker Magazine