Today: How Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s response to a physical attack uplifted the civil rights movement.
It happened in Birmingham, Alabama September 28th, 1962 when Dr. King was giving the closing speech of the four day annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC).
The auditorium was packed with 300 SCLC members, black religious and civil rights leaders from all over the South who had organized and participated in numerous boycotts, protests, rallies and marches, all of them conducted peacefully, following the guidance of Dr. King.
Nearly everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, with the men wearing conservative dark suits, white shirts and formal ties.
But in the sixth row that day sat Roy James a 6 foot 2 inch, 200 pound white man, who stood out because of his color but also because he was wearing a casual white T-shirt.
The SCLC meeting was open to all, however its members didn’t know this man was a Lieutenant Storm trooper of the American Nazi Party. And James grew angrier as Dr. King spoke.
Finally James could take no more. He sprung from his seat, bolted on to the stage and slammed his right fist into Dr. King’s left cheek, hitting the 5 foot 7 inch civil rights leader so hard, it sent him backward and into a partial turn.
James went after Dr. King and kept punching him rapid fire as the audience screamed in horror.
As people rushed to the stage, there was an instant when Dr. King was able to stand and face James. As James got ready to hit Dr. King again, the civil rights leader dropped his hands and looked his assailant in the eyes.
Dr. King was bleeding profusely from the punches, his lips and face rapidly swelling and his ears, neck and back were aching from punches that hit him there.
But this crowd of civil rights leaders watched in awe as Dr. King did as Jesus and as Gandhi had advised all of mankind, “to turn the other cheek.” James was also stunned at Dr. King’s reaction, as the two men silently stared at each other.
James anticipated these black men would beat him to a pulp. But immediately Dr. King’s voice rang out, “Don’t touch him,” and then again, “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” And no one harmed James, instead they prayed for him.
As they prayed, Dr. King assured James he wouldn’t be harmed. Then he took James to a private room and the two men calmly spoke.
Afterward, Dr. King declined to press assault charges. But James was still prosecuted and served 30 days in jail and paid a $25 fine.
James left the auditorium perhaps as stunned as the man he had attacked and he had witnessed “turn the other cheek,” not as words in a bible but in practice from a man he had severely injured.
The seeds of reason and love Dr. King planted in James that day did not take, but they did reach a far bigger audience.
For no-one who witnessed that attack and Dr. King’s response to it ever forgot what they saw. Dr. King had already been threatened numerous times, his house had been bombed with his family in it and he had been shot at, beaten, stabbed and jailed.
But most delegates hadn’t seen it for themselves, although they and their families had often been threatened and in some cases beaten and jailed. However, thanks to Roy James, now they had seen how Dr. King would handle so horrific an incident, putting nonviolence at his core.
This bloody scene reinforced Dr. King’s words of nonviolence and when the SCLC delegates, the leaders of the civil rights movement returned home, it was with the belief their marches, boycotts and protests must remain nonviolent.
In Dr. King’s words, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” And Dr. King did not hate James or anyone else, but rather tried to reach them with reason and love as he and other civil rights marchers absorbed their blows.
Using non-violence, the civil rights movement did “overcome” the bigotry and the vicious attacks to integrate America, and establish equal rights under law promised by the U.S.’s founders, many of them slaveholders, nearly 200 years earlier and never honored.
Today, we pay homage to Dr. King with a national holiday and by naming numerous streets and buildings for him and he holds an esteemed place in our history books. It comes in part from that 1962 day when the civil rights leaders saw Dr. King bravely stand-up for his principles.
Success Tip of the Week:
To succeed, stand-up for your principles as Dr. King did. It may not be easy but it sets an excellent example for others and it tells them who you really are.
For more details about today’s piece, please see “Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule For Real Leaders,” a book by Alan Deutschman (2009).
If you would like to see Roy James’ version of the incident, please see “White Pride World Wide,” a reprint of a 1962 interview James gave to the American Nazi Party magazine, “The Rockwell Report,” stormfront(dot)org/forum/t774281/ (1/22/11)
In the next KazanToday:
How Jack LaLanne’s life was changed by a little known women’s club meeting.