Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a perfect man, but when cultural winds collided to create a perfect storm of change, he became the ideal leader. His mixture of calmness and courage grounded in compassion — even for violently racist opponents — set an important example for others to follow.

And, while we set aside this day to celebrate King’s life and achievements, we remember that he was not alone. We also recall names like Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates and James Meredith. We even remember numbers like “the Little Rock Nine” and “the Greensboro four.”

The names I remember best are Lula Elam, Laura Elam, and Willie Murray, three brave souls from the west side of town who dared to enroll in Lincolnton High School (Georgia) in 1965. I will never forget how much tension there was when they first walked into the science lab that served as our ninth grade homeroom, or how much abuse was heaped upon them, or how they endured.

With shame, I confess to being among the oppressors on that day. In their steely courage played out over four years, however, my conversion from racism was born.

Today, wherever they are, I salute them.

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