In the 25 years since President Ronald Reagan signed legislation making the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday, King has become an almost mythical American hero. In the 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture at Vanderbilt Law School, Judge Roger Gregory, who saw King speak at a Virginia church as an eight-year-old, recalled King as a practical activist focused on bringing about an immediate end to segregation and the myriad injustices it institutionalized. However, Judge Gregory said, since King’s assassination in 1963 his image has “morphed” from that of an outspoken preacher who calmly but firmly insisted that American society embrace radical change for the sake of justice to that of “a more distant historical figure” celebrated as winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and a visionary civil rights leader whose ultimate victory was assured.
In his January 18 lecture, Judge Gregory, who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit since 1999, chose to focus on the demands that King made in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech rather than the dream King famously described in the stirring conclusion of his talk. “The dream was the ‘hook,’ if you will, in the normal tradition of the Southern Baptist preacher,’” Judge Gregory explained. “The most noted speech of Dr. King’s has taken on the great power of the dream, but Dr. King was not focused on his idea of what lies in the distance; he wanted justice now.”
King emphasized his commitment to the principles that “separate but equal is wrong, and violates the constitution” by demanding an immediate end to segregation and insisting that the government actively enforce equal rights for all Americans. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” King warned. “…Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Justice in the particular form of desegregation, Judge Gregory noted drily, would in fact take years to be realized in some areas of the country. States were ordered to desegregate their schools with “all deliberate speed,” but in Judge Gregory’s home state of Virginia, public schools in Prince Edward County were closed for five years before integrating. Judge Gregory, who grew up in rural Petersburg, Virginia, and graduated summa cum laude at Virginia State University before earning his law degree at the University of Michigan, became the first member of his family to graduate from high school.
Justice also came at a price. Eighteen days after King delivered his most famous speech, four girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “Dr. King had to go to Birmingham to tell people to stay calm, not to rise with the instinct to retaliate,” Judge Gregory said. In a telephone conversation, President John F. Kennedy urged King to continue encouraging African Americans to resist any impulse to retaliate. “The movement could not come down to a racial struggle,” Judge Gregory said. “Nobody would ever remember who started the fight, and Dr. King would lose those people of good will, white and others, who were helping. Therefore, President Kennedy told Dr. King, ‘I think you’ve got to tell the Negro that this is the hard price that they have got to pay to get the job done.’”
Judge Gregory also emphasized that King was a great leader, but a man whose “feet were made of clay. …By exalting his accomplishments into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity, his public and private struggle,” he said. “Dr. King dealt with the whole idea of the guilt of always being in the limelight, knowing there were always those who weren’t in the limelight. When you make someone so mythical and distant, you fail to realize that you could go and do likewise, …that life is not a dream, that there’s no time for slumbering, that it’s time to be awake, be up and doing.”
Those who remember King only as a mythical figure who achieved something great in the past may fail to recognize the need to continue working to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to realize their full potential, Judge Gregory concluded. “That’s a disservice to Dr. King, because that kind of justice is what Dr. King lived for and ultimately gave his life for.”