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Dr. King's Legacy: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement

The bill establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday, observed on the third Monday in January, was signed into law in January 1983. The day celebrates Dr. King's January 15, 1929, birthday and honors his immeasurable contributions to advancing civil rights efforts in the United States. Documenting the American South celebrates Dr. King by highlighting firsthand accounts from those who were influenced by Dr. King's leadership and legacy.

In a 1973 interview, John Lewis, a civil rights leader and future U.S. Congressman (D-GA), was asked to explain how King's work affected him personally and the South as a whole. "Martin Luther King had a tremendous impact on my life, without question," says Lewis. "Growing up in rural Alabama in Pike County—it was fifty miles from Montgomery—during the bus boycott, you had to listen to the man" (50).

Lewis recalls hearing King preach and later meeting him in person when Lewis was denied admission to Troy State College in 1958. "In a sense, he was my leader," Lewis explains. "He was a person that I thought was fighting and standing up and just doing those necessary things in the '50's and early '60's. The whole idea of non-violence, to understand the philosophy of and the discipline of non-violence, to use it more than just as a tactic or as a technique but as a philosophy, as a way of life—that was in keeping with what I had been taught, in keeping with the Christian faith. So it was not something that was strange and foreign to me, so I readily accepted that. I think the average black person in the South . . . it was not hard for black people in the South to identify with Martin Luther King. . . . He had a way of sort of capturing the imagination of the masses of black folks. You know when you travel in the South today, people are affected. They are influenced by what Martin Luther King said and did—not just the old, old blacks but the young blacks that remember Martin Luther King. . . . I just think that his leadership during the period from 1955 to 1968 had a tremendous influence on this part of the country. Even the white South as a whole will understand and will come to really appreciate Martin Luther King" (51-3).

Just three years later, Anne Queen, former director of the YWCA/YMCA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asserts in her interview that Jimmy Carter's victory in the 1976 presidential election symbolized that very appreciation that Lewis suggests. "I am very excited about Governor Carter's election to the presidency," she says. "In some ways, I think it comes the nearest of being a fulfillment of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. I don't think I've been more moved than I was the closing night of the Democratic convention as Robert Strauss gathered on the platform Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta King, George Wallace, oh, you name it, the people. It really brought together people who had been separated for years from the South by lines of race and economics. And as I thought about this, I feel that it happened only because there have been little groups in communities across the South working for years toward this goal, and I'm very proud to be a Southerner today and look forward very much. We still have the problems we had the day before the election, but the thing that excites me is that I think there's going to be a possibility for addressing these problems (25).

The Lewis and Queen interviews are part of Documenting the American South's "Oral Histories of the American South" collection, which will ultimately include 500 selections from the over 4,000 interviews conducted by the Southern Oral History Program and housed at UNC's Southern Historical Collection. Interviews can be read as text transcripts, listened to online, or both simultaneously. Patrons particularly interested in Civil Rights issues should browse the Civil Rights section within this collection.

Jennifer L. Larson