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Honoring the legacy and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – Part III

January 16, 2020

In Part I, we looked at some of the more radical and less-known positions that Dr. King had, particularly in the last years of his life. In Part II, we explored one of the systems of oppression that Dr. King challenged, one of the evil triplets,  militarism. 

In Part III, we thought it would be interesting to look at how the local news media reported on the 1963 march on Washington, the murder of the four girls in Alabama and how Dr. King’s death was covered by the Grand Rapids Press. We base this post on articles that have appeared on the Grand Rapids People’s History site, which began in 2011.

The first article looks at how the Grand Rapids Press reported on the Civil Rights marches in Detroit and in Washington DC in the summer of 1963. Dr. King and other leaders decided to do the march in Detroit a few months before going to DC as sort of a test run for what to expect in the nation’s capital.

The GR Press article (on page 5) states that the UAW, the NAACP and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), were all sending people to participate in the historic march. The same article in the also mentions that the AFL-CIO, the Grand Rapids Urban League and the Human Relations Commission (City of Grand Rapids), did not send their members to the historic march in Washington.

One final article from the Grand Rapids Press coverage of the 1963 March on Washington, was written after the marchers had returned from DC. The photo that accompanies the article shows 5 people, 4 with the NAACP and one from the UAW, looking at newspaper coverage of the march.

The article that accompanied the photo, provided some basic reflection from the 5 featured in the article, about what they liked and what they were impressed by. Unfortunately, the article did not reflect any sense of urgency that the marchers had brought to DC that day, not much of a sense of the efforts put into making the march happen or the larger historical context of the 1963 march on Washington. Besides Gary Younge’s book, The Speech, another excellent resource is, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington, by Charles Euchner.

There was also an editorial that ran in the Grand Rapids Press about the march on Washington in 1963. The editorial demonstrates what one might call a form of white paternalism

Just weeks after the march on Washington, racists bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four African American girls. People all across the US were outraged, including in Grand Rapids. This post from the GR People’s History site looks at the march that took place in Grand Rapids, where 3000 people came out to march against the racist violence that had taken place in Alabama, like the family pictured here.

Two things stood out to this writer, when reading that Grand Rapids Press article. First, the Rev. W. L. Patterson, with True Light Baptist Church, made this comment to the white people who marched that day. He said, “You have marched with us today, but please march with us tomorrow because we need jobs and places to live right here in Grand Rapids.”

Patterson’s comment made in clear that what the black community was asking the white community was for them to stand with them in the struggle for economic equality and housing justice, which the black community had been struggling to achieve, based on reports from the Urban League in 1940 and 1947, which we have cited in previous postings

The second comment cited in the article that stood out was a comment from Rev. Hugh Michael Beahan, a Catholic priest. Beahan stated, “Those of us who are accidentally white must be a little careful about our righteous indignation. We should see if our hands are clean – maybe too clean because we never lifted a finger.” Essentially, Beahan was calling out his fellow white community members for not doing anything to fight against segregation, institutionalize racism and white supremacy.

Lastly, it is worth looking at how the Grand Rapids Press reported on Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. There were several reaction from residents in Grand Rapids, one of which stated:

Reggie Gatling, referred to as a black power militant, said, “Members of the black community had a meeting last night and decided we would not give out a public statement that would be reflective of feelings. We’re in mourning for Dr. King, but to say anything further would only give comfort, or possibly discomfort, to white racists.”

In another Press article, “Grand Rapids officials recognized, however, that the situation still was touchy Saturday, and denied a request for a permit to hold a peaceful, silent march in tribute to Dr. King.

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