04/04/2013 08:41 am ET

Back to Birmingham

Today, the 45-year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good time to remember the historic events in Birmingham that started 50 years ago in that city which became the crucible of the civil rights crusade King led in the middle of the 20th century.

And on that date now, in 2013, it's an honor to be going back to Birmingham with Alma Powell, the chair of the America's Promise Alliance. She is returning to her hometown to launch a new stage of the campaign for children and youth that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton started, with General Colin Powell as chair, at the Presidents' Summit in Philadelphia in 1997.

I write as one who was in at the beginning of that campaign for the Five Promises pledged to youth at the Summit in Philadelphia, and before that as one deeply involved in the civil rights movement after the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, and its growth in significant part by Martin Luther King's turn to the Gandhian strategy of non-violent direct action.

In the first days of April, 1963, when the all-out campaign to end racial segregation in Birmingham was starting, I was far away, in Addis Ababa, having left my post as special assistant to the President for civil rights in order to go to Addis Ababa for two years as the Peace Corps' special representative to Africa and director of its 400-volunteer strong program in Ethiopia.

So from that distance I did my best to follow the dramatic moments of the Birmingham struggle that climaxed during the next three months. King called Birmingham "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." With some trepidation, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he had accepted the challenge to take on the tough city Commissioner of Public Safety, "Bull" Connor, who famously said that while he was alive there'd be no segregating together in Birmingham.

King joined the fiery and courageous Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights for the biggest test of non-violent action in the history of the then hundred-year fight for fulfillment of Emancipation and the equal rights constitutional amendments.

In those days in April, in Addis Ababa, when the post arrived, we read of the daily mass demonstrations in the streets of Birmingham, led mostly by local African American ministers, many of whom were soon arrested. Then for the first time in large numbers there were teenage students, often out in front, who were among those beaten and hosed and threatened by police dogs and jailed.

On April 12 1963, King joined the demonstration and was arrested for "parading without a permit." In response to a published plea by white religious and business leaders for King to go back from whence he came and let Birmingham solve its problems gradually, without outside intervention, he wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which he finished April 16.

When I received a copy of the Letter it was with special interest that I read a section that reminded me of our work together in 1957-58 when he was writing his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. He asked me to help with the editing, especially of his chapter Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. Shortly before the bus boycott began, he had read a convocation talk, Gandhi the Civil Rights Lawyer, which I had given in 1955 at Hampton Institute (now a University).

When I first met King in 1956, we discovered that in 1949, while my wife Clare and I were on a fellowship in India pursuing the trail of Gandhi, a year after his assassination, in that same season, Martin was at Crozer seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, reading the books he could find about or by Gandhi. He had just heard Howard University President Mordecai Johnson preach about Gandhi upon his return from India. King learned about the group of Negro leaders, including Howard University's then chaplain, Howard Thurman, who had gone to see Gandhi in 1935 to ask for his help. "Come to America," they urged, "not for White America, but for the Negroes." To which Gandhi replied, "How I wish I could. I must make good the message here before I bring it to you." But he added that from what they had told him "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world."

When King read the sections on Gandhi in the 1951 book India Afire which Clare and I had written after our return from India, he enlisted me in his book project, and I learned how much he had thought about the case for a nonviolent strategy back in Crozer and then again, six years later, after Rosa Parks said she would not move to the back of the bus and peacefully sat until the police came to arrest her. Reading King's letter from jail in 1963, I felt that he and the movement were well on the way to delivering the unadulterated message of nonviolence to the world.

Gandhi would have delighted in King's case for the nonviolent direct action in Birmingham, especially such propositions as these:

"One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

"I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."

Flash forward to the month after King's Letter. By early May 1963, Birmingham's jails were full and the juvenile court was inundated with youth who had marched and suffered the brunt of what became known as the "Children's Crusade." Television and print media brought the images of brutality into the living rooms of American families. Meanwhile, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall were on the phone behind the scene urging the business establishment to take action to end segregation in the city.

The time came when the white leaders of Birmingham were ready for negotiation. On May 10, King and Rev. Shuttlesworth announced a major settlement with the city leaders. Thousands of jailed demonstrators were released and segregation of public facilities was soon ended.

A month later, June 11, President Kennedy gave his historic speech making the case the civil rights movement had long wanted to hear a President make:

"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. . . The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

"If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

The story, of course, does not stop there, nor does Birmingham's role in it. The great peaceful March on Washington on August 28 gave us King's I Have a Dream speech, including his focus on the young, including his own four children. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he said:

"We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now... Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy... Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God's children."

That urgency became more urgent in the turmoil in Birmingham that fall, when its city public schools were integrated by National Guardsmen under orders from the President and Attorney General. Then Sunday morning, September 15, while they were waiting for Sunday school, four young girls were killed by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church .In response, the "Alabama Project" was soon begun by young civil rights leaders James Bevel and Diane Nash, which later grew into the Selma Voting Rights Movement and the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery.

On November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. He had just received the good news that his civil rights bill was going to be permitted to go to the floor of the House of Representatives. President Johnson picked up that torch. In March 1965, those of us marching from Selma to Montgomery had ringing in our ears his Texas twang saying to the joint session of Congress: "We Shall Overcome!".

Many of those close to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson believe that the sight of police brutality against the parading youth of Birmingham and then the killing of the four little girls, even more than the March on Washington and King's good words, was the emotional turning point that led to deeper and more determined Presidential commitment, and the increasing consent of the people for the civil rights acts that were at last enacted.

"Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning," King said to more than two hundred thousand marchers, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington monument.

So it is altogether fitting and proper for Alma Powell to be going back to the city where she grew up - and in a sense where America grew up -to remind us of the how much we still have to do to fulfill King's dream - which is the American dream -- to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. She is doing that with the fierce urgency of Now.

Now -when, as Alma says, that door is closed for many young Americans today simply because they had the bad luck to grow up in the wrong zip code, amid neighborhoods with failing schools.

Now--when, as she reports, one in every five students fails to complete high school, and among African American and Hispanic students, nearly a third will fail to earn a high school diploma."

Now - when, as she adds, earning a high school diploma is no longer a finish line but only the starting line, and every child needs to attend a school where graduation is the norm and opportunity is not just a word.

That is why the America's Promise Alliance, with hundreds of co-sponsor GradNation organizations, has set a goal for the year 2020, to achieve 90% high school graduation. Great goals galvanize, and Alma Powell and the Alliance for children and youth intend to hold 100 community summits in the next three years, with fifteen, including Birmingham, in the rest of this year.

A key partner, NAACP, led by Ben Jealous, now makes closing the educational opportunity gap a high priority. Alma Powell joins them in seeing educational opportunity as the civil rights issue of our time. I think Martin Luther King would agree.

In his last sermon, in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed, Martin said he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land, but "I might not get there with you." In those final years he was pointing to the mountains still to be climbed. But in the church that night he said, "Now we're going to march again...remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

To those who abandoned, or never accepted, the rule of nonviolence, Martin's answer when he heard the angry slogan "Burn, baby burn!" was: "No, it's learn baby learn."