On the third Monday of January each year, we celebrate the life, influence and contributions of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This Jan. 20 marks the 35th year our country celebrates King’s birthday as a federal holiday. I encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect upon his contributions to society and his philosophy of embracing equality and rejecting bigotry and segregation.
King served as one of my earliest mentors. I first met him when I was a student at Alabama State College in Montgomery, Ala., in the early 1950s. Leaving Chicago for Alabama brought many challenges and frustrations due to segregation. African Americans were not allowed to drink at certain water fountains. We were prohibited from sitting in certain seats on buses and banned from eating at many restaurants.
During my time at Alabama State College, I attended church in northern Montgomery where King served as the pastor. I had the privilege of listening and observing him firsthand. Following the lead of King, Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders, I participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ultimately led to the desegregation of the public transit system. This peaceful protest taught me the importance of perseverance and working together toward a common goal.
To this day, I remain impacted by King’s teachings. His values and dignified behavior continue to inspire and resonate with me. I remember fondly King attending my college basketball games and staying afterward to offer me words of encouragement and support. He made a difference in my life.
Sixty years ago, I established the Jesse White Tumbling Team as a way to give back to the community and to help young people in need of support and guidance. Because of my desire to help others, I became a teacher and a public servant. I cannot imagine becoming the first African American elected as Illinois secretary of state without King’s influence on my life and on society as a whole.
This Jan. 20, please join me in reflecting upon the legacy of King. In order to emulate his philosophy through my own life, I work to advise people: never discriminate or dislike someone because of race, creed or color; do something good for someone every day; and give back to those less fortunate when you become successful. If we do these things, we honor King through our actions.
Illinois Secretary of State