The following is a commentary from the desk of Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts, at the arrival of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday:
On Monday, January 15, our great City of Clarksville, Tennessee, will join the rest of the nation in observing a federal holiday honoring the birthday of a very important American.
“Greatness” is a term perhaps over-used at times, in describing various individuals and their achievements. But for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is indisputably, the correct descriptive term.
It is absolutely right, and appropriate, that we observe this day.
Dr. King, born in January 1929, stands above the rest across our free nation, for his tireless efforts in the 20th century to bring the term, “freedom”, and what it really should mean under the U.S. Constitution, into focus.
No one has done more than Dr. King to define American freedom. Through the non-violent struggle that he led for Civil Rights in the mid-20th century, this master orator from Atlanta, Georgia, bravely faced the perils of the time to achieve equal rights for black Americans. For his work, Dr. King earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Who could ever forget his impassioned “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.? Some among us remember it, others have seen the televised replay of it, or read the text. There has never been a speech quite like it.
The Civil Rights Movement that Dr. King in many ways embodied, protested racial discrimination in federal and state law.
It is fitting that his cause, which is our cause, was rooted in faith. Dr. King was a man of peace, heavily influenced by his father who was a church pastor in Atlanta – a city like so many other towns and cities in the South, in that it was plagued by bitter racism in the 20th century.
As early as 1936, Dr. King’s father had led a peaceful protest in downtown Atlanta against racial discrimination. This made an impression on the man that Dr. King would become.
After earning his doctorate degree, Dr. King began pastoring a Baptist church in what had been another racially-embattled city, Montgomery, Alabama, the same place where Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger.
Dr. King played a key role in protesting this event on behalf of Ms. Parks, and the peaceful Civil Rights resistance movement.
He would go on to become the face of the vital movement, but not without heavy personal sacrifice. He was jailed, mocked, and ultimately assassinated.
Shortly after his 1968 assassination not very far from Clarksville, in Memphis, came the initial discussion to make his birthday a federal holiday.
That conversation, in itself, proved that the struggle was not over. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, but some states resisted.
It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states officially observed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, for the first time.
Why did it take so long? We should all look in a mirror and ask ourselves this question, as just one part of the healing of America from the struggle for Civil Rights. And yes, while things today are indeed much better, we are still overcoming.
Ultimately, “We Shall Overcome.”
In Clarksville, Tennessee, I am proud that we are a community that is, today, diverse, and accepting of people representing every race, creed and culture.
We aren’t perfect, and we still have areas of room for improvement. But if you look around, Clarksville is far ahead of many communities in our evolutional journey into freedom and equality, as Dr. King, I truly believe, would want it to look.
It’s a major part of who we are as Clarksvillians, and I feel certain that what we have here in Clarksville is a microcosm of Dr. King’s dream for all of America.
Recent events following the Dec. 9, 2023, Clarksville tornado further illustrate our commitment to unselfish service, as he would have it.
Dr. King famously said many great and inspiring things that live on to instill hope in each of us, but one statement that stands out is this correct assertion:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
On behalf of Cynthia and myself, and the entire City of Clarksville employee family, we hope every Clarksvillian, and every American, will take time on this fitting national holiday, to assess yourself, your conduct and beliefs at home, in school and in the workplace, and take that extra step to live out the dream of this great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.