The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.