Why we honor MLK

County real estate records house many volumes of deed restrictions: stipulations that sellers require – and buyers agree to – when a piece of property changes hands.

So, I wasn’t initially surprised when I happened upon a set from 1927.

The parties involved in the transaction had surnames that locals would recognize. Their names are on old photos at the courthouse. Town streets still display their names.

The deed restrictions began innocuously:

1. Buildings shall be for residential purposes only.

2. All residences shall be built at a cost of at least $3,000.

3. All buildings shall be placed not less than 37 and 1/2 feet from the street.

4. No livestock shall be kept on the premises…

And then came this one:

“8. Premises shall not be conveyed to or owned by people of African descent.”

I double-checked the date. Could it have been 1827? No, my eyes had not misled. The deed restrictions had in fact been filed in February 1927, sixty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

For Gen Xers and later, the period between the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement can be a blur. Technically, there was freedom, but informally there were gradients of bondage difficult to understand without personal experience.

The letter of the law provided for equality, but the spirit of the law did not always follow suit. The discrimination described in the deed restrictions above is an example.

In his August 1963 speech in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. paints a picture for future generations of what life was like.

“…the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,

“our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities,

“the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,

“a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

Dr. King’s dream of justice is “deeply rooted in the American dream.” While he feels like America’s justice check has bounced, he refuses “to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

His optimism, his unquestionable love for whites and blacks alike, his commitment to satisfy the thirst for freedom without “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred;” these are the marks of a man who fights on a loftier battleground than the pursuit of mere earthly gain.

He didn’t say it from the podium that August day, but this imagery from his written speech draft makes the point:

“We are not here seeking soley (sic) the fulfillment of our selfish aims….the campaign of the Negro for equality is not a campaign for black men alone…we believe that black and white are alike on God’s keyboard.”

The most refreshing aspect of Dr. King’s persona was his focus on the future. He was simply not stuck in the past. He saw the futility of revisionist history. He didn’t vilify a lesser enemy.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

Instead, he called the nation to the highest ideals of its past: “…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”

Hence, we honor him and his noble dream again this day.


Kevin Thompson can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.




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