Today, a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people should take time to remember and reflect on how the First Amendment can better society.
Without the First Amendment, protesters could not have assembled and voiced their clarion call for an end to segregation laws. Without the First Amendment, the press would not have been able to report as freely on civil rights abuses.
King himself exercised his First Amendment freedoms at great peril. He faced arrest numerous times for his willingness to challenge local officials and galvanize people for social change.
Consider his role in the Albany Movement — a struggle in Albany, Ga., between civil rights groups and city officials over various demonstrations. Officials arrested King and many others in December 1961 in a coordinated plan of mass arrests designed to thwart the movement. It would not be the only time King was arrested by Albany police. He faced arrest in Albany again in July 1962 after holding a prayer vigil outside the city hall. Some considered the Albany Movement a failure, but King insisted that the lessons learned from Albany were the key to greater successes in showcasing civil rights abuses in Birmingham and Selma, Ala.
King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and countless other civil rights activists protested, petitioned and prayed in public in the face of hostile resistance. They often overcame arrests, libel suits and bombings.
We know that ultimately King did not escape assassin bullets, which took his life in Memphis on April 4, 1968. But, the day before, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In that stirring oration, he said:
“But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
King read and understood the 45 words of the First Amendment and its panoply of freedoms. He knew that government officials hostile to his cause often did not honor those freedoms. Yet, despite this hostility, King knew our freedoms and believed in them.
On Martin Luther King Day, take time to honor Dr. King and the First Amendment.
About the author: David L. Hudson Jr. is a scholar at the First Amendment Center.
This article was published by the Center for American Progress.