This year marks the 20th anniversary of the federal observance of January 15 as a national holiday in the United States, commemorating the birthday of the slain African-American civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was traveling through the south in the autumn of 1951 and was invited to stay the night in one of the dormitories at the all-black Virginia Union University in Richmond. It was there he met 18-year old student Walter Fauntroy.
One of Dr. King's closest advisers during the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60s -- and later, as a delegate in Congress, a tireless advocate for the King holiday -- was the Reverend Walter Fauntroy. The two men met by chance one day and ended up influencing the course of history.
"We talked all night long. Dr. King talked with me about Gandhi," Fauntroy says. "He said, 'I'm so impressed how one man among a nation of nearly a billion people forced the British empire to leave. How did he do it? Did he mobilize an army to run them out with guns? No. He appealed to the conscience of both the oppressors and the people.'"
Fauntroy went on to finish his studies at Virginia Union in 1955, and entered Yale Divinity School to pursue a career as a church pastor. By then, King had become a national figure. Fauntroy remembers seeing him on a TV news program.
"I look on television and I see this dapper young man, whose voice I remember from that period, talking about a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. I said, 'My goodness, he's doing it.'"
King, like Gandhi, was organizing an act of civil disobedience, a boycott of the Montgomery city bus system, because of an injustice done to a black woman named Rosa Parks. She'd been arrested, tried, and convicted for disorderly conduct for refusing to make room for white passengers. The bus boycott King organized lasted more than 380 days, until racial segregation on buses was abolished in Montgomery, Alabama.
Several years later, Fauntroy ended up becoming a pivotal figure in organizing a series of boycotts, sit-ins, and mass protests from 1958 to the late 1960's, what was to become known as the American civil rights movement. King, Fauntroy, and other black leaders called for laws that would end racial discrimination in employment and housing and guarantee black Americans the right to vote.
"We said we shall 'peaceably assemble and petition the people for the redress of grievances.'" That line from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- the right to "peaceably assemble and petition the people for a redress of grievances" -- was quoted often by civil rights leaders. It assured white Americans the movement posed no threat to them or their way of life and black Americans that they were within their rights to do the right thing.
"Black people decided, 'We're not going to shoot white people or fight them to get a seat,'" recalls Fauntroy. "'We'd rather walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.'"
The Rev. Fauntroy says most black Americans rejected violence because of their deeply religious culture. "They happen to be people who go to church every week. They happen to be people who hear [from the pulpits], 'Love your enemies. Do good to those that curse you.' You can't understand the movement without understanding the religious base."
The civil rights movement achieved sweeping legal reforms passed by the U.S. Congress in the 1960's. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, one of a series of assassinations of American political figures that decade that traumatized the nation.
Do African Americans enjoy full equality in 2007? Fauntroy says that many blacks have a better life today than 40 years ago. But he believes that prejudice against black Americans is still deeply rooted in the United States.
Fauntroy says the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is special. No other day is set aside to honor a single human being, but on January 15 Americans study why King suffered and died trying to preserve the American dream