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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Greatness And Its Humble Beginnings

01/19/2017 11:43 EST | Updated 01/19/2017 11:43 EST

martin luther king jr

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a small crowd at the Gaston Hotel, in Birmingham Alabama in 1962. (Photo: James H. Karales/GETTY IMAGES)

This is the week when Americans and non-Americans alike stopped to remember the remarkable accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. on the anniversary of his birth. A federal holiday in the United States, it prompts millions to think of the civil rights reformer's remarkable accomplishments.

Yet few recall those pivotal days and developments that drew King into the campaign and launched him into what would be his national, and international, leadership role.

The early days of the movement saw what appeared to be insurmountable divisions with the black community itself -- including among its leadership. Generation, class, education, religion -- all these carved chasms within the oppressed community the kept it from fully organizing.

Ed Nixon, an activist and union organizer, had been a pivotal leader during those difficult years. He was a towering figure who easily took risks for his community. Some thought him too abrasive and too insensitive to others, yet he persisted in his attempts to draw the various black communities together

On the day after Rosa Parks was arrested, there was quick agreement on a one-day boycott of buses. Nixon helped to call together the existing black leadership on that day, including many of the local faith leaders in Montgomery, Alabama. When Nixon maintained that the time had come to "go public" with their protests, many suggested meetings be secret instead, with no press, and away from the eyes of white leaders. Nixon responded, "How in hell are you going to have protest meetings without letting the white folks know?" He admitted growing discouraged at the attitude and said that perhaps it was time God sent them a new generation of leaders.

King should be remembered as much for his original and humble ventures as for his later set of remarkable accomplishments.

In the crowd that day was a young preacher from a local church. Martin Luther King Jr. rose to say that he was not a coward and they should all use their names and act out in the open. Before that meeting was over, King was named president of a new group to help organize new protest movements. Watching King's demeanour, Nixon told an associate, "I don't know how I'm going to do it, but someday I'm going to hitch him to the stars."

From that moment forward, King's brilliant speaking, his ability to take complex developments and break them down into actions of moral accountability, and his adroitness for working with others vaulted him to prominence. Speaking at a local Montgomery church a few nights later, his lofty but gritty rhetoric helped to ignite the flame of a new movement of protest. One particular sentence in that speech endured in the minds of all who heard it: "And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

One observer wrote later that King's speech that night not only electrified people but provided the clear sense that just at the needed time the right leader had arrived to propel the civil rights movement forward. In other American cities a new generation of leaders was rising to the challenge, but it would eventually be King's voice and reasoning that summoned the movement together and provided a non-violent plan for the future.

Suddenly America's whites had no choice but take the new movement seriously. Yet it took its time in coming.

martin luther king

People gather to march in the annual parade down MLK Boulevard to honor Martin Luther King, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S., Jan. 16, 2017. (Photo: Billy Weeks/REUTERS)

Martin Luther King Jr.'s predecessor at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Vernon Johns, was himself a powerful preacher and a courageous leader. On one occasion Johns accidentally dropped his bus fare on the floor as he entered the vehicle. The driver, in demeaning tones, called him "uncle" and ordered him to bend down in pick it up. Johns refused and the driver ordered him to pick it up again, threatening to kick him off the bus. It was then that Johns turned to the full bus of black passengers and said he was leaving and hoped they would join him. Nobody did. "Even God can't free people who behaved like that," Johns said the next day.

In a nutshell, the bus incident revealed the key problem within the black community: they didn't believe enough in their own power to alter their circumstances. That began to change a few months later when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and suffered in consequence. Yet it would take leadership to take the embers of protest and personal dignity and fan them into a gathered flame. King should be remembered as much for his original and humble ventures as for his later set of remarkable accomplishments.

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