Goshen College's first black professor muses on importance of Martin Luther King Jr.

A Goshen lawyer and political scientist writes about the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted on Jan. 20, 2014 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Jan. 20, 2014 at 9:04 a.m.

Lee Roy Berry, Jr., taught political science at Goshen College from 1969 until 2010. He was the first black faculty member hired by Goshen College. During his time teaching, he earned his Juris Doctor and currently practices law in Goshen. Below, Berry shares his memories and knowledge of the civil rights movement, as well as commentary on the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his work and those he worked alongside.

When Martin Luther King, Junior, took on the task of leading the civil rights struggle during the 1950s, black Americans, especially those of us who were born and raised in the states that comprised the former Confederacy, understood that the United States was a country based on the ethic of white supremacy and that the inscription emblazoned on the Statute of Liberty was meant primarily for white people. The poorest among us living in the South, who had the misfortune of encountering the legal system, also understood that though the 13th Amendment to the U S Constitution made slavery unlawful, it did not prohibit defacto slavery. After World War II, the most elite members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen such as Roscoe Brown and Calvin Spann, who attempted to earn their living by becoming commercial airline pilots, could not do so because the airlines did not hire blacks for those positions, regardless of their qualifications. A few years ago Douglas A. Blackmon documented in SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, how the treasuries in the governments of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina were routinely increased with revenue obtained from the practice of leasing black men who were arrested and summarily convicted for petty crimes.

King was, of course, only one among a number of outstanding leaders of the civil rights movement, broadly defined. Charles Hamilton Houston and his better known protégée, Thurgood Marshall, for example, played a major role by successfully attacking the system of white supremacy in the courts. King's significance and importance, by comparison, arose from his ability to inspire the black masses and those whom he called “white people of good will” to pursue our liberation solely through peaceful means and thereby establish our claim on a moral imperative that was inherent in the most essential foundations of the nation. This is what the famous black conservative Shelby Steele was referring to when in 1990 he wrote, “What made King the most powerful and extraordinary leader of this century was not his race but his morality.” (The Content of Our Character, p. 19.) King committed his very life to challenging the United States of America to “live out the meaning of its creed”—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” When he then convinced a critical mass of white elites from across the entire spectrum of power distribution in the country of this, he performed an invaluable service not only to those of us who experienced an immediate relief from the patently unjust burdens of white supremacy, but also the entire United States. By following King's leadership, leaders such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois began the process of removing the fraud and hypocrisy that had bedeviled the nation ever since its founding. This is why King rightly deserves the place he holds in this nation-state's pantheon of founders and builders.

There is perhaps a second invaluable service that King performed for his country. His success as a civil rights leader enabled him to show by example that at least in some instances, public policy matters of the greatest volatility are susceptible to resolution by peaceful means rather than arms. His personal commitment to non-violence and reconciliation, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his own life, reflected his deep sense of the humanity that he shared with those who hated him the most; and that sense prevented him from regarding his adversaries as being incapable of embracing positive change. No doubt, given the cynicism that dominates the present, it is easy to quickly dismiss this notion that genuine altruism can be a viable basis for resolving great affairs as well as small. Before doing so, however, one should recall the recent celebration of the life of another great man who, after being imprisoned for 27 years because he fought for his freedom, found that forgiveness and reconciliation provided the only viable path to his and his countrymen and women's ability to build their nation.

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