Martin Luther King Day

I gave this speech in Sulphur Springs, Texas, on Martin Luther King Day, 2006. I was invited by a group of churches in East Texas meeting together in a larger facility. The invitation came through Texas A&M Commerce, one of the universities in The Texas A&M System, where I was Chancellor at the time.

Bob McTeer

Martin Luther King

Sulphur Springs, Texas, 2006

It’s an honor to be invited to talk about Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day. But, frankly, I don’t know why you invited me, of all people. But I accepted your invitation because it is an honor. And it just seemed like the right thing to do.

I greatly admired Martin Luther King, especially in the early years of the civil rights movement, but I’ve never mentioned that publicly. My invitation must be based on the fact that Dr. McFarland was a previous speaker and did a good job. So, if the president of A&M-Commerce did a good job, then maybe the chancellor would too.

Maybe, but that logic is suspect since university presidents are probably more scholarly than chancellors. That’s certainly true in this case. You may not know what a chancellor’s job is. I didn’t until Mark Yudof, the chancellor of the University of Texas System, explained it to me. He said being chancellor is like managing a cemetery: There are lots of people under you, but most of them aren’t listening.

I admired Dr. King, both the man and his work. But I never marched with him, or against him. I was on his side: for desegregation, for an end to discrimination based on race, and for equal rights. I was against separate public bathrooms, separate water fountains, and separate and unequal schools—the most visible signs of discrimination at the time.

I was a supporter, but I watched the civil rights movement on television, as a spectator.

There were no marches or sit-ins in my little town in the foothills of north Georgia. This part of the state had never been plantation country, so we didn’t have richwhites and poor blacks. In my little town of Ranger, we only had poor whites. And no blacks at all. 

I attended grade school—it was called grammar school back then—in a three-room schoolhouse in Ranger, Georgia, population about 100, maybe a few more. As I said, there were no black families in Ranger. I went to high school five miles south in Fairmount, which, I believe, had three black families. I remember that because my school bus passed their houses on the way to school. I don’t know if they had school-aged kids, but, if they did, they went to the black school in the county seat of Calhoun, 18 miles to the west. Both my grade school and my high school got consolidated away, so now everyone travels 20 miles to Calhoun’s consolidated and integrated Calhoun schools.

I just used the term “blacks” and “black families.” I trust that’s not offensive to anyone. Back then the proper term—and the term Dr. King used—was “negroes.” Today it’s “African American.” Since this is an historical account, I’m using the term that emerged during the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, about 75 miles south of Ranger, on this day in 1929—77 years ago. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and studied theology at Boston University. Like his father and grandfather before him, he became a Baptist preacher.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks—who died last October at age 92—refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to whites. (For perspective, this was just over a year after Brown vs. the Board of Education.) 26-year-old Martin Luther King, a local pastor and member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, was drawn into the ensuing bus boycott and, as they say, the rest is history. I was barely 13 at the time, and had been baptized as a Baptist four months earlier in a muddy creek behind Liberty Church outside Ranger. A deep-water Baptist!

I mention my Baptist credentials so I can tell a Baptist joke, hopefully, without getting into trouble:

They say being Baptist doesn’t keep you from sinning; it just keeps you from enjoying it. That’s why you can probably classify me now as a backsliding Baptist.

On occasion, one might have classified MLK the same way, but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the man, in my opinion. If we set the bar for our role models and heroes too high, I’m afraid we won’t have any. You don’t have to be perfect to be great.

In an interview years later, they asked Rosa Parks if she kept her seat on the bus because she was tired. She said no, she was just tired of giving in.

MLK emerged from the successful Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted over a year, as a civil rights leader.

He became the founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957.

His belief in nonviolent tactics was based in part on Gandhi’s teaching, and a trip to India in 1959 strengthened that commitment.

He didn’t initiate or lead the sit-in movement (at lunch counters and the like), but he got drawn into it by activists in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

He was arrested in October 1960, during an Atlanta sit-in, just before the presidential election. John Kennedy called King’s wife, Coretta, to express his concern. This attention reportedly helped get King released, and probably helped Kennedy get elected president.

By then, I was a freshman at the University of Georgia and voted for Kennedy in that, my first election—partly because he seemed stronger on civil rights and partly because my Dad had always voted for the Democrat, whoever he was, because, in his words, “Democrats are for the little man.” My Dad dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work in the sawmill. He always considered himself a little man. He was a very smart man who was borderline illiterate, and I’m here today because of him.

(But I still don’t think it was smart for him to allow his vote to become automatic—to be taken for granted. Especially if it’s based on the slogan of a past era.)

That January—on January 9, 1961—the University of Georgia was integrated by two black students: Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. He later became a doctor in Atlanta, and she made it big in journalism as Charlayne Hunter-Gault onThe NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Hamilton Holmes registered for the psychology class I was taking. As I recall, he sat apart from the other students, and they (that is, we) pretty much ignored him. I wish I could report to you that I went out of my way to make him welcome, but honestly, I felt like I was just barely hanging on myself as a freshman from a tiny rural town in a big university. I didn’t do anything ugly. I just didn’t do anything, and I was typical. If I was feeling overwhelmed, think how he must have felt.

Looking ahead two years, I sat next to Harold Black in an international trade class. Harold told me he had been the third black student at UGA, and we became classroom friends of sorts.

I stayed at Georgia and got a Ph.D. in economics. He left and got his Ph.D. in economics from Ohio State. He’d told me he’d been subjected to some minor harassment early in his freshman year—people banging on his dorm room door and so on—but it was not too bad. What I admire most about Harold is that he says he has fond memories of his Georgia days and he doesn’t hold a grudge. I believe he sent his daughter to Georgia.

[As a footnote, so did Hamilton Holmes, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, went on to Medical School at Emory in Atlanta, and latter became an ardent UGA supporter. He died in 1995 at age 54. Georgia named a professorship after him in 1999 and named the academic building after him and Charlayne Hunter in 2001, on the 40th anniversary of their arrival.]

Back to Harold Black. At one point, I thought I’d probably lost his friendship when he asked me to sign a petition to bar the ROTC from campus. I declined to do so, but he didn’t take it personally. Following several important positions in government, Harold has been in recent years a professor of finance at the University of Tennessee, another one of those schools that wear those awful orange-colored football jerseys. In preparing these remarks, I googled Harold and his picture indicated that he as lost more of his hair than I have.

Harold’s asking me to sign the ROTC petition created quite a moral dilemma for me. I wanted to support him as a friend, and, frankly, as a black student in a white school. But I didn’t see the connection with ROTC, one way or another. Later on, of course, Martin Luther King presented the country with the same dilemma by bringing Vietnam into the Civil Rights Movement. More about that later.

Charlayne Hunter had a rougher start at the University of Georgia. One night during her first or second week, Georgia lost a basketball game, and as the upset fans piled out of the arena, someone yelled out, “Let’s go to Center Myers”—which was her dormitory. A crowd of students and locals gathered there, threw some rocks, broke some windows and made news acting like the redneck idiots they were. My roommate and I were in our room, listening to it on my portable radio. He wanted to go over there and watch—just watch, he promised. I wouldn’t go. So he called me a bad name that you can imagine.

After the first couple of weeks, I don’t recall much fuss about race or desegregation on the Georgia campus. I graduated in 1963—the year James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi with the help of 5000 federal troops—and won a fellowship to stay at Georgia for graduate school.

When my fellowship ran out in 1966, I became a full-time instructor for two years and didn’t leave Georgia until August 1968, about four months after King’s assassination at age 39. So his remarkable civil rights career began when I was roughly 13 and ended just before I was 26. Where I was and what I was doing are, of course, not important, but it helps me keep track.

As a civil rights leader, Dr. King had his failures as well as his successes. Through it all, he adhered to a nonviolent approach, despite the urgings of more militant leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He achieved a great victory in Birmingham in 1963 when his organization, the SCLC, orchestrated a series of clashes with the police. Remember Bull Connor? The use of police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors attracted much media attention and national sympathy and prompted President Kennedy to introduce major civil rights legislation in June 1963. Kennedy was assassinated that November, and it was left to Lyndon Johnson to get the legislation through Congress the following year.

King’s most famous and most-quoted writing was his letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963, in which he defended the use of civil disobedience to unjust laws.

His most famous speech also came in 1963—his “I Have a Dream” speech, following the march on Washington.

Time magazine, fittingly, named him “Man of the Year” for 1963.

1964 wasn’t a bad year either: He became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, at age 35.

Voting rights protests and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, came in 1965. That August, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

King took a major turn in 1966, moving into a Chicago ghetto and launching a campaign against poverty.

He also became increasingly vocal against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and delivered a strong antiwar speech at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967.

His antiwar stance attracted more attention from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which used bugs and wiretaps to find something damaging.

Dr. King became involved in a Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in April 1968. On the evening of April 3, he made the following familiar comments regarding his optimism for the future despite the obstacles that lay ahead.

He said . . .

“. . . it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop . . . and I’ve seen the Promised Land. . . .

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

He was murdered the next day, on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the second-floor balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

He was only 39 years old.

Martin Luther King Day was first celebrated in 1986.

So far I’ve been summarizing facts that many of you remember, at least vaguely.

It goes without saying that I was, and still am, a great admirer of Martin Luther King.

He was a great man, a great leader, a great orator—right up there with Winston Churchill.

When I taught a weekend mini-course on public speaking at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s, I assigned his speeches because I considered them some of the most eloquent ever written.

Earlier I said I admired Martin Luther King, especially in the early years of the civil rights movement.

What I meant by that qualification was that in the early years, he was trying to right clear wrongs, to end racial discrimination and demeaning treatment, and promote equal opportunity and respect for all.

His philosophy was to turn the other cheek, despite attacks by thugs with badges and their dogs.

He avoided returning violence that would likely have caused many more casualties and polarized the nation rather than won its support, as he did.

His message was accepted not only because it was right, but also because it was pure and unencumbered by extraneous issues. He fought clear and plain evil in those early years.

I personally thought it was a mistake for him to mix his messages in his later years and put our Vietnam efforts and fighting poverty on the same plane with ending racial discrimination.

Many others and I believed at the time that our cause was noble in Vietnam—that what we were trying to do was right, even if we weren’t doing it very well. I think King’s position on Vietnam muddied his message on civil rights.

Public opinion on Vietnam after all these years has moved in King’s direction. History will probably declare him right on the war, but I still think our cause was noble and that millions of people would have been better off had we won. But in the context of tonight, I just want to offer the opinion that Vietnam diluted King’s main message, which was a purer and more righteous message.

Similarly, I also thought it was a mistake for him to take on some of the economic issues that he made part of his movement.

Make no mistake about it: We are all against poverty and unemployment, which were especially severe among his people, and still are to a lesser extent. His goals were and are shared by all people of goodwill.

The problem comes not with the goals of ending poverty and unemployment but with the means of doing so—with the economics.

Good people disagree on that—especially economists, even good economists.

You’ve all heard the economist jokes.

One is that if you laid all the economists end to end they would never reach a conclusion

My point here is that those who care the most don’t necessarily have the best answers. Some well-intentioned remedies end up doing more harm than good.

I would even define economics as the study of unintended consequences.

President Kennedy’s assassination left it to President Johnson to get most of the civil rights program through Congress.

Having been Senate majority leader, Johnson was good at that, perhaps too good.

The Civil Rights Act was needed. The Voting Rights Act was needed.

My Dad, in his Truck Stop, needed the Civil Rights Act as an excuse to do the right thing.

But laws have their limits.

You can’t eliminate poverty by making it illegal, and you can’t achieve prosperity by voting for it.

Attempts to do so generally run afoul of the law of unintended consequences.

Economists generally agree, for example, that legislating higher minimum wages can raise wages for a few while contributing to the unemployment of many.

Getting the incentives right can create a needed safety net for the poor. But getting the incentives wrong can lead to welfare dependency for generations of the poor.

I don’t mean to turn this into a polemic on economics.

My point is simply that the drive for freedom and the end to discrimination is probably more successful if it doesn’t become part of a larger ideology with unrelated features that weaken the total message.

I don’t know what Martin Luther King would say about some of the major issues of today.

But because he was a very intelligent man, I believe his thinking would have evolved with the times, with changing facts and circumstances, and with our better understanding of economic issues.

If he were here today, I think he would say the job is not finished, that more needs to be done.

But I think he would also recognize the enormous progress that has been made.

I think he would caution his people against thinking of themselves as victims—even though they have been victims—and urge them to take responsibility for their progress and prosperity.

It takes time. Usually generations.

I’m relatively prosperous. I have a good job.

But I can’t take much of credit for that. Most of the credit goes to my Dad, the seventh grade dropout who quit school to work at the sawmill.

From the time I can remember, he told me I had to go to college so I wouldn’t have to work as hard as he did.

I assumed I had no choice in the matter.

He saved enough money to start a gas station and saved enough there to build a truck stop, which is where I grew up—raised by my folks and long-haired waitresses.

The truck stop was successful enough to send me to college before Interstate 95 bypassed it and drained off its business.

We are all poor until someone steps up and, with sheer will, decides to break the cycle of poverty.

Government safety nets are needed to catch us if we fall, but we can’t depend on them to help us soar.

That depends on us, with the help of our family and friends.

Martin Luther King was a great man. A great leader.

He gave his people freedom and dignity and a more level playing field.

He gave his people a beginning toward the good life.

I’m not sure what a 77-year-old Martin Luther King would say if he were here tonight.

But with more eloquence than I could ever muster, I think he would say something like the following to his people:

Don’t forget the past, but don’t dwell on it.

Continue to seek justice, but look inward and to God for the strength to move onward and upward.

Don’t use the past as an excuse for failure in the future.

Use the past as an incentive to break the cycle of poverty through education, dedication and hard work.

Take responsibility for your own progress and success.

What I will leave you with tonight is that I hope we in the Texas A&M University System can help in the noble quest.

We have nine universities—not as many flavors as Baskin- Robbins, but enough to meet diverse needs.

The closest is Texas A&M Commerce, but they are all in Texas.

We have Texas covered.

We are proud that a high percentage of our students are first-generation college students, just as I was.

We want to help.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday than to be here with you tonight.

Comments (2)

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  1. Andi says:

    Reminds me of being in Nutty Putty Caves, turning off the lihtgs, and feeling the darkness seemingly press in on me, almost palpable. But any source of light, even a tiny flame on a match, could make the darkness retreat. Of course, darkness still remained where people or other obstacles blocked the light.

  2. Bernardo says:

    Even I had no words, worthy or not to say notihng could top hisThe article you linked to was disturbing in its truthI know too many people today Black & White who distill King’s accomplishmentsI could make cases for Bobby Seale, James Farmer any number of Black leaders but they weren’t MLK their notion of change was much more restrictiveAnd I so wished I had been older and able to work in the civil rights movement we forget that girls/women were fully accepted in it, and never as accepted in anti Viet Nam movementLike or Dislike: 0