MLK Day: using 1st Amendment to fight for freedom

Monday, January 17, 2011

“It might mean going to jail, and it might mean filling up the jail houses, and it might mean physical death for some, but it is a small price to pay for the freedom of future generations.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King delivered these words in January 1957 in a speech at a church in Atlanta, celebrating the 94th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The 27-year-old preacher had entered public consciousness with his leadership role in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama.

King’s message — worth reflecting upon on as we celebrate this day in his honor — reminds us that the First Amendment and other individual freedoms are worth fighting for. Sometimes the price of free speech can be high, as government officials may react to protests with violence, punishment or arrest.

The civil rights movement featured countless individuals literally risking their lives when they took to the streets to petition the government for redress of grievances, as it says in the First Amendment. They assembled in rallies, marches and mass pilgrimages to protest racial injustice. Using the pulpit of faith — his religious freedom — King urged that individuals exercise their free speech to send a clear message to society “until the walls of segregation come tumbling down.”

Those walls eventually came down but not without sacrifice and suffering. They would not have come down without individuals committed to the cause and willing to exercise the freedoms found in the first 45 words of the Bill of Rights.

Dr. King knew that many in positions of power would resent civil rights protests. In 1966, he warned of “forces already dedicated to the denial of freedom of speech and the repression of voices of dissent.” But he dedicated his life to using his First Amendment freedoms to fight for the cause of freedom.

That is a message worth remembering today as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.