Reflection on MLK’s “Speech to Glenville High School”

Reflecting on the progress of civil rights ten years since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. inscribed an article entitled “Next Stop: The North.” He wrote, “the South… in this past decade experienced the birth of human dignity – eating in restaurants, studying in schools – for the first time in a century.  The North [has] altered not for the better but for the worse.  To the homes of ten years ago… were added ten years of decay. School segregation did not abate but increased.”

Cleveland, Ohio, fit King’s description of the North when he visited in 1967.   Violence had just decimated the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland.  Public schools were still segregated by race – and would stay that way until the resolution of Reed v. Rhodes court case in 1976, twenty-two years after Brown.  It was not just the South that needed racial healing – the North too needed the active work of nonviolent active resistance.

When King stepped up to speak at Glenville High School (read here and listen here), he understood that his nearly all-black audience had withstood a great deal in the preceding years.  They had endured years of violence, physical segregation, and feelings of being ignored by those in power.  With that mind, Dr. King gave some relevant (for his audience then and for us today) encouragement for those sowing the seeds of civil rights:

  1. No matter your circumstances, remember who and whose you are:
    (A) Now the first thing that we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebodiness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody.
    (B) Now this is all I’m saying this morning that we must feel that we count. That we belong. That we are persons. That we are children of the living God. And it means that we go down in our soul and find that somebodiness and we must never again be ashamed of ourselves.  Black is as beautiful as any color and we must believe it.
  2. Society, the federal government, and local leadership may actively resist progress, but you must not give up the active fight for equality and dignity:
    (A) And let me say to you, my friends, that in spite of the difficult days ahead, the so-called white backlash — which is nothing but a new name for an old phenomenon — I’m still convinced that we’re going to achieve freedom right here in America.
    (B) Freedom is never voluntarily given to the oppressed by the oppressor. It must be demanded.
  3.  Progress is made by those who are united and formally organized towards a common goal
    (A) Our power lies in our ability to unite around concrete programs. Our power lies in our ability to say nonviolently that we aren’t gonna take it any longer.
    (B) One of the things that we need in every city is political power. Enough of our parents don’t register and vote. Each of you should serve as a committee of one to work with your parents if they have not registered to vote and other people in the community…. Cleveland, Ohio, is a city that can be the first city of major size in the United States to have a black mayor and you should participate in making that a possibility.

In Memphis, Tennessee, we face many of the same struggles that spoke of in Cleveland over fifty years ago.  Our schools sit nearly as segregated as before Brown, violence steals the lives of so many of our children, but we also have the ultimate opportunity to do something about it.  We must remember that Godly identity surpasses stereotype, progress outweighs popular intransigence, and unity bests antagonism.

Seven months after King visited Cleveland, the city elected Carl Stokes to be the first black mayor of a major city just as King had predicted.  This only happened because of the hard work of civic organizations and everyday people throughout the city.  If it could happen in Cleveland then, what could happen if we listen King’s words in Memphis today?

   – Ben Hyde, Class of 2015