The United States celebrates the third Monday in January every year in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pioneer of the 20th century Civil Rights movement. Like many towns across America, Lexington has its own King connection. He spoke to a sellout crowd of 1200 at Lexington High School on February 11, 1963, touching upon Lexington’s recent foray into the idea of civil rights activism. King said to the crowded room,
“The twin evils of housing and employment discrimination…stand as the greatest barriers we face, and if we could get rid of these two I’m sure that there would be progress in other areas.”
Lexington, attempting to reconcile its stature as the birthplace of American liberty with the racism still plaguing its idyllic liberal suburbia, still had a long way to go. So did the nation. On Patriot’s Day that year, King sat in Birmingham Jail, preparing to pen a letter.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, yet failed to include people of color in this decree, each generation of white Americans has come to the realization that these words ring false in our culture. In Lexington, it was the grandchildren of the revolutionary Patriots, some of whom were slaveholders, who led the fight in the Civil War era. These included our own Theodore Parker, along with local Ralph Waldo Emerson, who often preached in Lexington while working as a Unitarian minister. As the national dialogue around race peaked again starting in the 1950s, some locals began to take action once more. This was no easy task; like many towns in the area, Lexington had fewer than 20 black families. While some tried to move to the area, local realtors often discouraged them, either due to racism or the sympathetic idea that they would be lonely in such a white town. By 1962, a town civil rights committee was formed, along with a Good Neighbor Pledge, petitioning Lexingtonians to welcome and love their neighbors, regardless of race. 1500 people signed, although this represented only 5% of the town’s population.
It was to this awkwardly growing town that Dr. King spoke. Like speakers about inequality today, his words in the face of a larger crisis brought out the worst and the best in people. Over the next several years, Lexington faced several crises of civil rights, as well as an increasingly fervent backlash against discrimination. On August 31, 1963, a protest in favor of a black family broke out on the Battle Green following a housing discrimination case, exactly what King had warned of. Several locals eventually travelled to Alabama to join the Selma campaign, and in retaliation, a cross bearing racial slurs was burned on St. Brigid’s lawn, just days after Bloody Sunday. Hoping that more organized integration would help, Lexington eagerly joined the METCO program the next year, but even this was controversial and often violent.
In the decades since, Lexington has grown into a racially vibrant community, celebrating an annual MLK Day of Service. But all of us, including the Historical Society, can always evaluate where we could be doing better. The painful history of the Civil Rights movement, and of the black experience in Lexington from the days of slavery to today, can be difficult to grapple with. A heavily-white organization, often focusing on the glory of the American Revolution, can find it all too easy to overlook these parts of our history. This year, we were dismayed to find our events calendar again devoid of this subject. So as another Martin Luther King day comes and goes, with Black History Month on the horizon, we ask you, our readers, where do we go from here? How can we best celebrate black history in Lexington and foster relevant discussions, particularly in today's world where race is once again at the forefront of political debate? What would you like to see us do to better serve our community?
- Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager