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MLK's Message Continues to Conquer Hate

Martin Luther King’s message was more than a spirited sermon – it was a belief that defined his leadership and became the crux of the Civil Rights Movement.

Reverend Jesse Douglas said, “This person who was from the American Nazi Party called his name. And when he turned around, he punched him in the face. The guys that were there, they were going to do him in. And Dr. King, ‘No, brethren, wait a minute, wait, wait. Don’t harm him. He is the victim of the indoctrination of hate.’ He felt that hate cannot overpower hate. That only love can. If you’re going to fight hate with hate, you’re fighting a losing battle.”

Dr. King’s example inspired peaceful protests across the country. It also exposed decades of social injustice, bringing blacks and whites together for a common cause.

“When America began to see racism, good-hearted people began to say, ‘No, I don’t think so. This is not right. This is not good,’” said Dr. Alveda King.

“I just couldn't understand why this was happening to the African American community. I just didn’t understand it,” said Peggy Wallace Kennedy.

Peggy had a unique view of racial prejudice. Her father was Alabama George Wallace – the man who ran his campaign on this promise: “And I say, segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever."

Peggy was 12 when her father, flanked by state troopers, blocked Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the University of Alabama. The move was in defiance of President John F. Kennedy’s executive order to integrate America’s schools and colleges.

“I loved my daddy more than anything in the world,” Peggy said. “I did not want him to stand in the schoolhouse door, but he did. I just thought it was wrong. I wanted to go up to these people and say, ‘You deserve to be here. You should be here.’ But I couldn’t.”

The standoff ended without incident when President Kennedy called in the National Guard. But the next time Governor Wallace tried to intervene, it didn’t end so peacefully.

On March 7th, 1965, six hundred men and women started out on foot from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery to protest voter discrimination. On the far side of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, they were met and assaulted by state and local police.

“They deserved the right to vote,” Peggy said. “They were human beings.”

The clash – known as bloody Sunday – left one dead and dozens wounded.  Wallace, who had ordered law enforcement to Selma, had to answer.

“I would like to think that my father said, ‘Do not attack the marchers,’” said Peggy. “That's what I would love to think.”

Two weeks later, some 25,000 protestors led by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders and made the 47-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery. Within two months, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the voting rights act into law. But hatred was still alive.

On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed at a motel in Memphis Tennessee.

“I can’t stand to talk about it,” Reverend Jesse Douglas said. “That’s how hurt I was.”

“I remember saying to my dad, ‘I just hate white people; they killed Uncle ML,’” Dr. Alveda King said. “He says, ‘wait a minute, wait a minute. White people didn’t kill your uncle.’ He says, ‘White people prayed with us, white people marched with us. White people go to jail with us, white people die with us. The devil killed your uncle.’ And I remember him saying that, ‘We have to love, we have to forgive, we have to love, we have to forgive.’”

“He didn’t hate anyone,” Reverend Jesse Douglas said. “He saw this as a part of God’s plan because he knew that his life might be snuffed out at any time. And he was ready for that. We were determined to give ourselves to helping to fulfill the dream.”

Not everyone would embrace that dream. Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, who was only 5 when he was murdered, found herself struggling with anger as she entered her teen years.

“I remember distinctly in my heart feeling very angry,” Dr. Bernice King said. “I was angry at white people because I felt they were responsible. I was angry at black people because I felt like we hadn't done enough to continue the work. I was angry at God because I felt He could have stopped it. My anger did turn to rage and bitterness and hate. I literally ended up hating all white people, especially white men.”

But as Bernice dealt with her own pain, Dr. King’s message of love and forgiveness would prevail, even in the hearts of those who were once his enemies.

While campaigning for presidency in May 1972, George Wallace was shot 4 times at close range by a volunteer. The wounds left him permanently bound to a wheelchair. But that wasn’t the only change Peggy saw in her father in the years that followed.

“He realized that with his suffering and pain, how much suffering and pain he must have caused the African American community,” Peggy said. “He'd talk about segregation, and he'd talk about how wrong he was. He just wanted forgiveness.”

“One Sunday, he asked his body guards, he said, ‘I want you to take me to Dexter Avenue Church.’ They took him down there unannounced. And they rolled his wheelchair down that middle aisle, and he sat there and asked that congregation to forgive him. And they did. It filled my heart up. It showed me what love and forgiveness is about. This was a very healing moment for him.  

Meanwhile, Bernice’s heart was also changing. Ever since her father was killed, her mother, Coretta Scott King, had refused to give in to hatred.

Dr. Bernice King said, “The Bible says, ‘Do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you.’ I saw her bless those that cursed her. Do good to those that hate her. And when she would say, ‘I don't hold grudges,’ I watched when people did very painful things to here that she just didn't hold it. She still loved them. It was just a powerful embodiment of Christ's Spirit in our home.”

It wasn’t until an interview on the James Robison Show in 2000, that her healing finally began.

Dr. Bernice King said, “In the middle of it, he said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ Now internally I'm like ‘No! You’re a white man, no.’ But my mother taught me better, so I said, ‘Sure.’ And he gave me a hug, and it was one of the most genuine hugs I've ever received. And that sounds probably for most people so simple and trite, but it was very powerful because it began my healing process.”

Another milestone in that healing would come in 2015. On the steps of Alabama’s state capitol, Bernice and Peggy stood side by side as thousands gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Dr. Bernice King said, “Being able to join as sister to sister with Peggy Wallace years later for me was like a moment of redemption.”

Peggy said, “I hugged her and I said, ‘I love you, Bernice.’ And she said, ‘I love you, Peggy.’ And I thought at that moment about that line that Dr. King spoke about ‘One day down in Alabama I hope that white girls and little black girls can hold hands like sisters." And I thought, Dr. King and my father must be up there going ‘How would we know that it would be our daughters that held hands as sisters down in Alabama?’”

Much has been accomplished through the work and sacrifices of so many people. While there’s more to be done, the solution is always the same.

Reverend Jesse Douglas: “Only love can develop sensitivity in another person’s mind and heart.”

Dr. Alveda King said, “It will never be legislating morality to such a point that people will do what is right, unless you change the heart of the human being. The human heart, once it confronts genuine love, forgiveness, repentance, it can change. And when that heart is genuinely surrendered to God, then we can learn and find what my uncle called the strength to love.”

“It's who we are and how we live and lead our lives that causes true transformation,” said Dr. Bernice King. “Dr. King changed people not just by his words – he didn't preach stuff that he didn't live, he lived it. We have to learn to hear the truth of God's message and live it and embody it because that's the light that the world desperately needs right now. It needs the Spirit of Christ. People know the name of Jesus. They don't know His spirit. And we must become His Spirit.

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