Our Sacred Martyrs

Co-authored with Jonathan D. Greenberg

In his First Inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln implored us to be guided by "the better angels of our nature."  Following them, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But Reconstruction was followed by a hundred years of black codes, Jim Crow, and KKK terror across the former Confederate states.

On February 12 1958, in an address launching the Southern Christian Leadership Conference "Crusade for Citizenship" on the anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Martin Luther King, Jr. honored the memory of those he called "the sacred martyrs": "The Reverend George Washington Lee shot and killed in Mississippi; Mr. and Mrs. Harry Moore, bombed and murdered here in Florida; Emmett Till, a mere boy, unqualified to vote, but seemingly used as a victim to terrorize Negro citizens and keep them from the polls."

On a brilliant Wednesday, August 28, 1963 - one century after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued - hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered at at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington.  Echoing Lincoln's inaugural address, King emphasized the stark choice before the American people. "It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment," King said.
He meant it literally.

Just weeks before, Medgar Evers had been shot in the back by a KKK assassin outside his home.  On September 15, three weeks after Dr. King shared his dream, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were killed in the KKK bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Virgil Lamar Ware, riding on the handlebars of his brother's bike, was murdered by Birmingham segregationists that same afternoon.  

In 1964 and 1965 when the SCLC, SNCC and CORE launched major voter registration campaigns throughout the south, the killings escalated. The names of those who died in the struggle for voting rights and racial justice, inscribed at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs, include:

Louis Allen, shot in Liberty, Mississippi on January 31, 1964. Johnnie Mae Chappell, shot in Jacksonville Florida, on March 23. "Her killers were white men looking for a black person to shoot following a day of racial unrest."  

Reverend Bruce Klunder, a civil rights activist, crushed to death in Cleveland, Ohio on April 7.

Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, murdered by Klansmen in Meadville, Mississippi, on May 2.

James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, murdered by Klansmen
outside Philadelphia, Mississippi on June 21.

Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, murdered by Klansmen in Colbert, Georgia, on July 11.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, "beaten and shot by state troopers as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers," Marion, Alabama, February 26, 1965.

Reverend James Reeb, beaten to death after marching in Selma, Alabama on March 11.

Viola Liuzzo, "ferrying marchers between Selma and Montgomery when she was shot and killed by a Klansmen in a passing car" on March 25.

Oneal Moore, one of the first black deputies hired in a white police force in Bogalusa, Louisiana. "Moore and his partner, Creed Rogers, were on patrol when they were blasted with gunfire from a passing car." Moore was killed, and Rogers wounded, on June 2.

Willie Brewster, killed in Anniston, Alabama by members of the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party on July 18.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a voting rights worker, murdered in Hayneville Alabama by a deputy sheriff who'd held him in custody, on August 20.

Samuel Leamon Younge Jr., a student civil rights activist shot in the head by a gas station owner following an argument about the station's "whites only" restroom, in Tuskegee Alabama, on January 3, 1966.

Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, a businessman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi had "offered to pay poll taxes for those who couldn't afford the fee required to vote." Dahmer was burned to death on January 10, when his house was firebombed after his efforts on behalf of black voters were publicized on a local radio station.

Ben Chester White "was murdered by Klansmen who thought they could divert attention from a civil rights march by killing a black person," in Natchez, Mississippi on June 10.
Clarence Triggs was a bricklayer who had attended civil rights meetings sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality. "He was found dead on a roadside, shot through the head," in Bogalusa, Louisiana on July 30.

Wharlest Jackson, the treasurer of his local NAACP chapter, targeted by the Klan. Jackson was murdered by a bomb planted in his car, in Natchez, Mississippi, on February 27.

Benjamin Brown, a former civil rights organizer in Jackson, Mississippi, was killed when police fired into a crowd assembled to support a student protest, on May 12.

Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Delano Herman Middleton and Henry Ezekial Smith were killed by police who fired on student civil rights demonstrators at the South Carolina State College campus in Orangeburg, South Carolina on February 8, 1968.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Our sacred martyrs include countless others, named and unnamed in our nation's history books, including four thousand souls who had been lynched by the KKK and other white supremacist groups.

We remember them.  We honor them. Their deaths occurred at different times during the 20th Century. Today, in this, our 21st Century, after the election and reelection of Barack Hussein Obama, as the 47th and first African American President of the United States, we are confronted with a resurgence of wide spread gun violence. This has occurred and persists, acutely within, but not just solely, African American communities in addition to the continued exercise of lethal force, as the the first option by police, in seeking to arrest an African American or other person of color.

Accordingly, as this tormented election season draws to a close, we believe it would be immoral and for us to overlook the special urgency of this moment. In the words of one of the stanza's from "LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING, (W)e have come over a way with tears have been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered."

Decency and morality, therefore, require us to acknowledged in reverence and respect those who died seeking justice before this week's national presidential election:  

We remember the black and brown men, women and children who died by means of excessive police force, or while in police custody, including Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and many others whose names we do not know.

We remember Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, Lorne Ahrens, Wenjian Liu, Michael Krol, Rafael Ramos, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Anthony Beminio and Justin Martin, police officers killed in New York City, Dallas and Des Moines, Iowa, respectively, during the months of this election campaign, by gunmen who had scorned Dr. King's call to nonviolence, negotiation and dialogue.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. urged Americans to renounce violence. Forsake the bullet, he preached. Fight for the ballot -- and secure political representation and human rights by its exercise.
He regarded voting as the political and moral obligation of all citizens.   Not voting was an anathema to him.

In a radio address before the 1964 presidential election, for example, King implored all citizens to register and vote, reminding Americans that "[i]t is a part of the history of democracies that men have fought and bled and died to win the right to vote."

As we approach Tuesday's immensely consequential election, again, at the risk of redundancy, we call everyone' attention to the historically important crossroad confronting our nation when the opportunity is again presented to us to choose our next President of the United States.

Donald Trump represents the antithesis of Martin Luther King, Jr. Trump's campaign has energized white nationalists hate groups throughout our country. Neglecting to vote, or voting for a third party, marginally increases the chance that Donald Trump will become President, turning Martin Luther King's dream into a nightmare of suffering. Tuesday is our last chance to prevent the immeasurable catastrophe of a Trump presidency.

At this fateful juncture in our history, complacency and nihilism are poison. Curses upon both houses, so-called protest votes -- these are self- indulgences.  The fate of our nation, and the world, depends on your vote.

A decision not to cast a ballot this year at all would dishonor the memory of our sacred martyrs, Americans who fought and bled and died to win the right to vote, including Dr. King himself.

Now is the time to honor the better angels that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. called us to follow.