On January 1st 1863 when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s (written on 22nd September 1862) Emancipation proclamation became official it was not meant to free all enslaved Africans in America. The language of the proclamation specified freedom for all “slaves” residing in states that were considered rebel states by the federal government. The rebel states named in the proclamation were Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. This Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to enslaved Africans who were toiling in states that were loyal to the Federal government. If the leaders of those ten states named in the Emancipation Proclamation had not rebelled against the Federal government, Lincoln would not have signed that proclamation and perhaps another generation of Africans in America may have had to endure the brutality of chattel slavery. All enslaved Africans in America were finally freed when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed on December 18, 1865
On January 2nd, 1863, one day after Lincoln’s proclamation, a male child was born to Willis and Lucretia Williams, an enslaved African couple in Georgia. According to the Federal government, this child had been born free because he lived in one of the rebel states. So depending on whose laws are used, the maternal grandfather of Martin Luther King Jr. was the first of his (MLK’s) ancestors born in America who was a free person or he was the last to be born a “slave.” Adam Daniel Williams the maternal grandfather of Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 2nd 1863 in Penfield, Greene County, Georgia and lived until March 21st 1931.
Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized as one of the leaders of the modern Civil Rights movement. The third Monday of January is recognized by law in the USA as Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Martinsday. Martin Luther King Jr Day is recognized by many people internationally even though the country in which they live might not legally endorse the day. The stories of Dr. King’s non-violent response to the terrorism and violence of white southerners determined to deny African Americans equal rights, are legendary. King did not come by his oratorical skills, his activism, or his dedication to working for the freedom of his people, accidentally. His maternal great grandfather (Willis Williams) although born during the time Africans were enslaved in American, was a preacher to other enslaved Africans in Georgia. Following in the footsteps of his father, Adam Daniel Williams, (King’s grandfather) became a preacher also. He left Greene County, Georgia and traveled to Atlanta in 1893, 28 years after the abolition of slavery in the USA. When Williams arrived in Atlanta in 1893, he became a minister at Ebenezer Baptist church. The congregation of the church was 13 members strong. Using the pulpit to preach the gospel as well as collective work and responsibility and cooperative economics, the Reverend Williams increased the membership of Ebenezer Baptist church to 750 by 1913. Williams expanded his advocacy and activism in September 1895 when he became a delegate, joining two thousand other delegates who met at Atlanta's Friendship Baptist Church when three groups united to organize the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America, considered one of the largest African American religious organizations. In February 1906, A.D. Williams took the lead (in response to W. E. B. Du Bois' call for civil rights activism) by joining five hundred other African Americans in Georgia to form the Georgia Equal Rights League. In 1917, Williams became one of the founders of the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). On becoming the second president of the local chapter of the NAACP in 1918, he mobilized a voter registration campaign to register African American voters (a dangerous undertaking in 1918). The membership of the local NAACP grew to 1400 members within five months under his leadership. In a speech to the NAACP national convention the following year, he convinced the delegates to meet in Atlanta in 1920, the first national NAACP convention to meet in a Southern state. Williams’ activism and leadership led to the city eventually building the Booker T. Washington High School, a secondary school for African American students which Martin Luther King Jr. attended.
Given his ancestry, it is not surprising that Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from high school when he was 15 years old, an age when most students are entering their second year of secondary school. He graduated from Morehouse College at age 19 in 1948 (his grandfather A.D. Williams had attended Morehouse). Morehouse College, founded more than 140 years ago is one the many Historically Black Colleges and Universities that still exist today. It is unique in that the student body is all male and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the many prominent African American men who have been educated at Morehouse. Black Enterprise Magazine has ranked Morehouse as the best school for African Americans for undergraduate study and its prestigious standing has led to its favourable comparison to Harvard. King came to national attention as the young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama who was elected leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). As leader of the MIA, King was also leader of the Montgomery bus boycott which not only brought him international attention but endangered his life and the life of his family. King’s life work reflected the work of many of our ancestors who risked their lives for their community. King recognized the role of ancestors like the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey as pioneers in the struggle for African human rights. In June 1965 he visited Garvey’s grave, laid a wreath and spoke of Garvey’s activism which gave Africans a "sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, a sense of somebodiness.” On December 10, 1968 King was the posthumous recipient of the first Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights issued by the Jamaican Government.
In the tradition of Garvey and other freedom fighters, King was harassed and even imprisoned for his work on behalf of his people. In the same tradition, he refused to be silenced. When he was imprisoned in Birmingham in April, 1963 he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham jail” in response to criticism from a group of white religious leaders (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) who thought that African Americans should “wait” and not be in such a hurry to have their human rights recognized. Dr King’s letter to the group of white religious leaders detailed why African Americans could not continue to “wait.”
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while he was in Memphis Tennessee to support striking African American sanitation workers. His life ended while he was working to improve the lives of his people. On Monday, January 21st, America will observe a public holiday to celebrate the life of Dr. King. Many of us here in Canada will celebrate Dr. King’s life in various ways. We can all observe that day by reading some of his words, especially his thoughts on reparations. In his book, “Why we can’t wait” published in 1964, Dr. King writes; “No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.” Keep in mind that Africans were also enslaved in Canada.
Written January 2008