By Margaret Griffin
“He fought so that we could have the same opportunities as everyone else. He wanted to bring us all together.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a name that will forever be remembered in American history. As the most visible and persistent modern civil rights activist, he fearlessly led the difficult fight for equality in our nation. Assassinated 50 years ago, his legacy still lives on today.
Meridian native Jerry Scott was born to Zibbie and Lennie Scott in 1952. Scott and his five siblings grew up listening to King’s speeches and watching his marches. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School and later Meridian High School.
In 1964, leaders of the Freedom Summer, or Mississippi Summer Project, opened several Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi. Volunteers from across the country came to register voters and educate African American communities. The largest Freedom School in Mississippi was located in Meridian and housed in the Meridian Baptist Seminary across the street from Scott’s childhood home.
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, of New York City, were two Freedom Summer volunteers who came to Meridian. In June of 1964, they went missing along with local black activist James Chaney. Their bodies were found 44 days later in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Chaney had been badly beaten, and all three had been shot.
Scott was just 12 when this tragic event unfolded, and the nation’s attention turned to Meridian. Violence, such as this, continued, and by the time King was shot four years later, Scott was hardly surprised.
“Everybody was sad to hear that he had been shot because there was so much good he was doing,” said Scott. “But a lot of us expected it to happen. Sooner or later we figured somebody would kill him.”
According to Scott, the entire community was saddened by the news, but it was Scott’s mother who took it the hardest. While she never participated in the marches, she was passionate about the Civil Rights Movement.
“His legacy was to make us all equal,” said Scott. “He fought so that we could have the same opportunities as everyone else. He wanted to bring us all together.”
Scott, now 66, lives with his wife, Barbara, in Meridian. While his three sons were growing up, he made sure they were aware of King’s legacy by teaching them that they have the same opportunities and rights as everyone else.
Scott said King faced more adversity than most people would be able to handle, and enjoying the rights and freedoms he fought for has not always been easy.
“Even all the way up to the ’80s, you were never really comfortable,” said Scott. “Some places still had the same negative attitude about waiting on and serving to blacks. Even today, there are certain times when you can have a little discomfort.”
Overall, Scott thinks King would be happy with the progress our country has made since the ’60s, but we still have room for improvement. Scott said he believes police brutality towards African Americans and crime within the African American community would be disappointing to King. He also wishes young people would take voting more seriously.
“I just hope we don’t let everything he did go to waste,” said Scott. “I see a lot of young kids won’t vote. So many people, black and white, died to give us that right. We really need to get out there and exercise it.”
Many cities across the country have honored King by naming streets, buildings, and landmarks after him. However, Scott has noticed a trend of these streets normally being located on the poorer side of towns. He said having more frequently used streets in nicer parts of cities named for King would make a significant difference in the way we honor King.
Scott believes King would have become the first black president had he not been assassinated. He was smart, fair, and well-liked, but Scott said there was one quality about King that set him apart from other activists. “He was patient,” said Scott.
A long, gruesome fight for equality rightfully tested the patience of many during the ’60s. Nevertheless, King was able to maintain a demeanor that commanded respect in the most reputable of ways. It has been nearly 50 years since King’s assassination, and his death is a significant moment in American history, but the way his life ended is not the reason he is still remembered today.
He is remembered because of the approach he took while fighting for minorities to have the right to vote and live equally in America. He used his intelligence and faith to win a fight against ignorance and hatred. Americans will forever remember him and be inspired by his bravery, compassion, and reverence in a fight that required a patient heart indeed.