The history of black Americans since Emancipation is being revisited by a generation of historians who have found in it a touching and tragic story of aspirations and efforts for education, justice and equality, most of them crushed by overwhelming force and political power. But the most important figure in this reconsideration was not a historian; it was a preacher, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King, celebrated on this day two days after his birthday, came to prominence in the mid-20th century as the foremost figure in what became a new Reconstruction. Part of it was a national drama that included working people boycotting the buses in Montgomery, Ala., because a dignified and determined woman named Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Then there were the efforts, in different places and by different people, to take a seat at a lunch counter, ride an interstate bus, stay in a motel, register to vote. By the time of Dr. King’s death, little more than a dozen years after the bus boycott, the federal government had legislated open accommodations and protection for the voting rights of all Americans. Racial prejudice, openly expressed, was gradually becoming unacceptable in this country.