On his last birthday in 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had breakfast with his family and then headed to his church to plan what would be his last big protest.
He arrived at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as pastor, around 9 a.m. Jan. 15, dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie, as he often did. He was there to work that day, not celebrate. And there was much to be done.
King needed to persuade President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to divert funds away from the war in Vietnam to the war on poverty. That would require much more forceful action than people walking arm in arm singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other civil rights workers who surprised King with a cake as he turned 39 joked that he had forgotten his own birthday. Such celebrations seemed insignificant to a man who carried the burden of a nation’s inequalities on his shoulders.
A homemade video of the event, included in the HBO documentary, “King in the Wilderness,” shows King leaving the room when his aide, the Rev. Andrew Young, called him back.
“Some folks celebrate Abraham Lincoln, but we’re going to celebrate Martin Luther King’s day today. Don’t let him out of here,” Young shouted.
King was jubilant, Jackson said in an interview last week. He turned back and walked through the room smiling as his friends sang “Happy Birthday.”
They ate cake and drank punch for about an hour, Jackson said, and then everyone went to work.
As the nation paused Monday on the federal holiday recognizing King’s birth, we were reminded of the power of protests and the role they have played in changing the course of American history.
We are saddened by the events of Jan. 6, when insurrectionists sought to block democracy by storming the U.S. Capitol as Congress was carrying out its constitutional duty of confirming a presidential election.
Had the rioters studied the life of America’s greatest protester, they would have known that violence would get them nowhere. Even if they were fighting for something real rather than a lie that the presidential election had been stolen, violence still would have led to condemnation and the demise of their movement.
There is much wisdom in King’s words.
“If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos,” King said in 1956.
Protest was King’s greatest weapon in the movement to gain equality for Blacks and other marginalized groups in America. No one has been as proficient at fighting for change without inciting violence or destroying property. Nor in the 53 years since his death has anyone been as successful in forcing the government to acknowledge a movement and agree to its demands.
The thing King understood that the people who stormed the Capitol did not is that violence pushes a movement backward, not forward. Even those responsible for the violence stemming from police brutality last summer were out of touch with the model King adhered to decades before they were born.
There is much everyone can learn from him now.
King spent his final months planning one of the most impactful protests of the movement’s Poor People’s Campaign. According to Jackson, King’s opposition to the Vietnam War had drawn the ire of politicians and the media, as well as some within the civil rights movement who said that it ventured too far away from the mission to eradicate poverty.
Forcing the government to return its focus — and financial resources — to fighting poverty seemed like an impossible feat, seeped in a toxic mixture of politics, race and religion. But King was determined.
So he spent much of his birthday in the church basement, convening representatives of racial, ethnic and religious groups from across the country. There were Blacks from the Deep South, Jews, Native Americans and Appalachian whites, as well as Latinos from Cesar Chavez’s labor group in southwest Texas and California.
It was a coalition of people with similar interests, yet they had never been brought together in a room to talk it out. But they came together on King’s birthday to discuss plans for the Poor People’s March to the nation’s capital, Jackson said.
They would erect makeshift tents and shanties on the National Mall to bring attention to poverty, and they would call it “Resurrection City.”
King knew that the bigger the coalition, the more forceful the protest would be, according to Jackson. But King also believed that no one could prosper when others are left behind.
“People couldn’t make ends meet,” Jackson said. “Most people work every day, make less and are under stress and don’t live as long.”
They were going to Washington, Jackson said, to sit in the street and engage in civil disobedience. “We felt we could change the national conversation to healing at home rather than killing abroad,” he said.
Like other protests King had in the works, he would not live to see this one. He was assassinated three months after his birthday, on April 4, 1968. But Resurrection City was still erected in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, drawing more than 3,000 people from around the country.
Some of his closest confidants told historian and author Taylor Branch that King appeared “melancholy” in the weeks before his birthday. Jackson and others took solace in knowing that they had made him laugh that day.
Activist Xernona Clayton, a pioneer TV host who began her civil rights work at the Urban League in Chicago, presented King with some small gifts, including a metal cup.
“We know you really don’t need much, but we thought of some things you ought to have,” she said. “We know how fond you are about President Lyndon Johnson, and we know how you support him and everything, so I got this little cup for you.”
She read the inscription out loud. “We are cooperating with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Drop coins and bills in the cup,” it said.
And the man who carried the weight of a civil rights movement on his shoulders laughed.
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