I’m writing this as we approach Martin Luther King Day on which many businesses and institutions are closed but my office will be open for business on his day. Like many national holidays, ML King Day is anticipated by many as a day to sleep in a bit, putter around the house, perhaps attending a parade or just hanging out. Obviously, I feel differently about it. To me, Dr. King and his legacy are about opportunity and dreams. My dream was to own a business.
When I was about 12 years old, I met the then Reverend King when he came to speak at our church in Niagara Falls New York. He was then a preacher on tour to raise funds to help support the nascent Civil Rights movement. You see, I was born in Andalusia Alabama which is near Montgomery where the MLK era in the civil rights movement began. My Grandmother lived near the bus line where the famous 1955 boycott led by Reverend King began. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of the players in that movement. They include Rosa Parks who’s refusal to move to the back of the bus sparked the bus boycott along with Coretta Scott King and other members of the King family.
Since I launched my TV production business in 1988, I’ve celebrated the life of Dr. King by being open for business because I believe that he and his fellow activists put themselves in harm’s way so that I could lead a life rich in opportunities. They didn’t face police batons, dogs and fire hoses so that I could sleep in and go to the mall. My professional life has been enabled by dreams and if I had to choose one Dr. King speech to chisel in stone, it would be the “I have a dream” speech which he first delivered in 1963.
Most of the people he stood before at our church that day in the late 1950s either worked for small businesses or owned them. America was hitting its peak as the world’s dominant industrial giant but small town residents and to some degree black communities knew a different world. It was much more about self reliance and businesses with less than 500 employees; in other words, small. I don’t remember specifically what he said during the sermon but I was glad to be there. It took some convincing by a family member to get me to remain after the sermon to meet the traveling preacher. After all, for a twelve year old boy, getting to the playground for a baseball game had a lot more appeal!
We don’t always know when we are living historic moments. I’m confident that Reverend King had no idea that becoming the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery would change his life and the course of American history. As a result of his consciousness altering leadership, the halls of corporate America became a clearer pathway for aspiring blacks. Farming and other small businesses faded into the background as more employment opportunities became available. Many black owned businesses had been created simply because the owners operated in a segregated world and desegregation took away their reason for being.
My sister was among the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 when Martin Luther King uttered the words “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” Though he conveyed many messages during his tragically brief time at the visible edge of a true movement in America, the one that is permanently embedded with me is that we can all live our dreams. So many people are afraid to live their dreams, to walk into them boldly. How many of us look up to see that someone else is living the life that we want to live? No doubt Dr. King had to manage and reject his own fears and trepidations to do what he did. Just about every business owner can easily identify with that! So, each year when media throws a spotlight on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King around the national holiday, I celebrate self reliance, the dream of unity and the possibilities yet to be realized.
A dear friend of mine, John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation Hope often speaks of the Civil Rights movement having morphed into what he calls the “Silver Rights Movement.” Business and commerce are at the center of that thinking. I’m privileged to have a business and since Martin Luther King’s shoulders are among the many that I stand on, I’m open for business on his day.