By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Martin Luther King Jr. is a giant of the Civil Rights Movement and is one of the most important Americans in all of US history. A man of exceptional courage and conviction, King is known worldwide for his monumental success in fighting for racial equality and social justice using nonviolent, mass activism. Although he was only a public figure for 12 years, his accomplishments were extraordinary, and his legacy is still profoundly felt today – 50 years after his death. A powerfully charismatic leader, King led marches, organized protests, rallied community leaders, and galvanized a nation with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963.
Although he routinely faced assaults, imprisonment, and even death threats, he never gave in to fear and remained committed to a cause that spoke to millions of disenfranchised Americans and fellow dreamers. Bold, intelligent, and well-spoken, Martin Luther King became the face of African-Americans struggling to find their place at the American table. During his lifetime, he gave more than 2,500 speeches and traveled more than 6 million miles to promote the cause of racial equality. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his remarkable work and his commitment to non-violent methods of change. In the long run, his success as a civil rights leader helped bring about social change that would transform an entire nation. And there are few social reformers in history that have gained as much respect and admiration as the Baptist minister turned human rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.
IN THE SHADOW OF RACISM
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the middle child of three. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a Reverend, and his mother, Alberta Williams King, was a wife, mother and prominent figure for the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Although Martin had been legally born Michael King, same as his father, his father soon changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the Protestant religious leader and reformer.
As a young boy, Martin Luther King grew up in a middle-class household that valued education, self-discipline, and hard work – values that clearly shaped the man he would become. He sang in his church’s choir and was often complimented for his impressive voice. Overall, life was fairly peaceful and uneventful for King in his early years. However, as he started to attend elementary school he had his first experience with the ugliness of racial segregation, and it made a powerful impression on him.
At the start of the school year, King was separated from his white friend due to local segregation laws. His friend went to an all-white school, which was off limits to King. Instead, King was obligated to go to an all-black school. Not long afterwards, his friend’s father forbade him to play with King anymore. It was an early and ugly lesson in the practice of racism in America, and it was an experience that truly hurt King. However, it was not the only time he was witness to racial inequality. King often saw his father struggle with the injustice of the system. In one instance, his father stormed out of a department store after being told to wait in the rear of the building to be served. Another time, his father refused to pay a traffic ticket when the police officer derisively called him “boy.” His father was clearly frustrated with the system, but forced to deal with it on a regular basis. As a result, the young Martin Luther King experienced or witnessed racism time and time again as he was growing up, leaving an indelible imprint on his psyche.
In later years, as a teen, King attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he excelled at his studies and became well-known for his gift of public speaking. (He was such an accomplished student that he skipped the 9th and 12th grades, enabling him to graduate early.) In 1942, at the age of 13, he took a job as assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station (the youngest ever). Later, after passing an entrance exam at the age of 15, he was accepted into Morehouse College, a respected, historically all-black learning institution located in Atlanta. But Martin Luther King had a calling of a different kind early in life, one that he felt compelled to follow. One year before graduating, he chose to enter the ministry, feeling that such a position was the best way for him to “serve humanity.”
After graduating from Morehouse in 1948 with a B.A. in sociology, Martin Luther King enrolled in seminary school, where he was valedictorian and student body president. He graduated from there with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 – at the age of 22. Later, he attended Boston University, where he earned a PhD in the study of religion. Around this time King had met and fell in love with Coretta Scott, and the two were married in June of 1953. Not long after, in 1954, at the age of 25, King was called to act as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. This was the kind of opportunity he had been waiting for, and he accepted the offer. It was a location that would become an important centerpiece of the civil rights movement.
A CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER EMERGES
On December 1st, 1955, a galvanizing even took place, when Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger. Local leaders immediately organized a bus boycott, hoping to bring an end to the policy of racial segregation on public buses. Although King was untested at the time, they reached out to him and asked him to lead the protest. He quickly accepted, and by December 5th, he was leading his first major civil rights campaign.
As a Christian minister, and an admirer of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King followed a strict non-violent approach. Although he faced regular death threats, King never wavered in his approach. The boycott lasted a total of 385 days, and there were no major incidents of inter-racial violence. Eventually, the case went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. And in December 1956, the nation’s highest court ruled that segregation in public busing was unconstitutional. As a result, the city of Montgomery, Alabama, was forced to establish an integrated bus system. King had won his first civil rights victory, but there was a price to pay for his activism. His house was bombed by white supremacists, and before the ordeal was over, he had been arrested and imprisoned during the campaign. However, in the end, King had not only won, but was catapulted into the national spotlight as the leading spokesperson for the growing civil rights movement in America. “The time is always right to do what is right,” King said.
With his first victory behind him, Martin Luther King became more actively involved in social reform, leading marches and protests against racial and economic inequality, and bringing together organizations of like-minded people. In 1957, King, along with other civil rights leaders, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a network of southern churches established to help organize the movement’s non-violent protests. King led the organization until his death. In his role as SCLC president, King traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on civil rights and on nonviolent methods of political protest. As he traveled, King met with a wide range of religious figures, activists, and political leaders.
ACTIVISM AND ACHIEVEMENT
Martin Luther King organized and led many marches in the mid-sixties, calling for integration, voting rights, legal protections, and other basic civil rights for African-Americans. One of his boldest and most dangerous efforts was the campaign to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, which was one of the most repressive and racially divided communities in the nation at the time. The campaign, which lasted several weeks, included boycotts, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and several public marches.
Even though King was jailed early in the campaign, he was soon released and returned to the front lines. While he was in prison, however, he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained and defended his strategy of non-violent resistance. The letter was widely published and became a core philosophical document for the Civil Rights Movement. In the letter, King wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
As the Birmingham campaign progressed, local officials became increasingly frustrated with the protestors, and the violence of the tactics began to escalate. At one infamous demonstration, police used trained dogs to attack protesters, including children, and fire fighters used high-pressure hoses to knock demonstrators off their feet. When footage of the event was played on national news stations, much of white America was shocked at the brutality of the tactics, causing many to join in the cause and later take part in marches.
Although the tactics were starting to take a toll on the protestors, their commitment remained unbroken. And eventually, the legal challenges raised by the campaign went all the way up to the Supreme Court, with the court ruling decisively against the segregationists – giving Martin Luther King and the SCLC a major victory. In the end, the Birmingham Chief of Police responsible for the excessive use of force was dismissed, Jim Crow signs were torn down, and public places became less segregated and more open to African-Americans. Although it was one of King’s riskiest ventures, it turned into one of his greatest successes.
Growing more and more encouraged, King led marches and protests in a range of other repressive places, like St. Augustine, Florida, and Selma, Alabama. He also travelled to New York City to deliver a speech at the New School on the race crisis in America. Although marches occasionally turned violent, it was always started by either the authorities or civilians who opposed racial integration. And through it all, King remained committed to strictly following a nonviolent philosophy, even when he was criticized by black militant groups (such as Nation of Islam) that embraced violence as a means to an end.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” said King in response to his critics. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
Through peaceful protest, direct action, and persuasive lecturing, Martin Luther King helped the movement win one victory after another. But arguably his greatest victory came when he teamed up with five other civil rights organizations in 1963 to launch the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” a massive and unprecedented public gathering that took place on August 28th. The march was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The goal of the march was to raise awareness about the challenges still facing African-Americans and to advocate greater civil and economic rights – including greater access to jobs and housing.
In total, the march drew more than 250,000 people of all races and backgrounds, all dedicated to advancing racial equality. More than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, and 10 chartered airliners, as well as untold numbers of cars descended on Washington, D.C., to participate. The march, which began at Washington Monument, wound its way through the streets of the capital, ending at the Lincoln Memorial. However, as the event was kicked off , King and several other key leaders were in a meeting with US congressional representatives, trying to negotiate a major civil rights deal. Although King was scheduled to speak that day, he continued to negotiate, hoping to win a major legislative victory that he could announce later at the event. Unfortunately, they could not work out a viable agreement, so King and his colleagues left the meeting headed for the march. They soon met up with the massive crowd and joined them at Constitution Ave. where they linked arms, sang hymns, and all marched together.
Originally, the intention of the march was to denounce the government for its failure to safeguard civil rights for workers and blacks, and to put pressure on Washington to take greater action. But President John F. Kennedy expressed his concern that the protestors would appear too hostile and would jeopardize the passage of several planned civil rights bills. So he asked King and the other civil rights leaders to tone down the rhetoric and keep it more positive. Always practical and strategic in their decisions, King and the others agreed. Nevertheless, the final event was still a powerful moment in history, culminating in King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech — arguably one of the most rousing and influential speeches in American history.
Although King’s 17-minute speech was given last that day, it was by far the most moving and electrifying. Delivered with power and passion, the words reverberated throughout the crowd, moving people throughout the nation and, indeed, the world. “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
Later that year, King was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” And in 1964, at the age of 35, he became the youngest person (at the time) to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to non-violent resistance and positive social change.
VICTORY AND LOSS
In many ways, the huge successes of 1963 paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed all forms of discrimination based on race and prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment, and public facilities. This single law, signed by President Lyndon Johnson at a large public ceremony, was perhaps the greatest and most important victory of the Civl Rights movement. While King was pleased with this remarkable achievement, he realized he now had an unstoppable momentum and kept pushing for additional reform.
In the spring of 1965, King led another famous march, from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, this time calling for an end to discrimination in voting. In states throughout the South, African-Americans were being denied access to the voting booth as a result of blatantly discriminatory laws. Although these laws were being challenged at the local level, King was hoping that the federal government would take decisive action and end voting discrimination with national legislation. This march was designed to raise awareness and put additional pressure on Congress. As a result of the march – and continued pressure from King and others – the Voting Rights Act was signed into law later that year. This single act gave African-Americans access to one of the most powerful political tools in a political democracy: the right to vote. In many ways, it changed everything.
By the late 1960s, Martin Luther King was broadening his message and speaking to a wide range of issues from the Vietnam War (which he opposed) to worker rights to ending poverty. At this point, his message was beginning to go beyond race to broader issues of social justice. In early 1968, he led the “Poor People’s Campaign,” an effort to win economic justice for America’s disenfranchised, regardless of their race. He and several other civil rights leaders also went to Chicago to investigate racial discrimination in the housing market, uncovering examples of “racial steering,” the practice in which real estate brokers guide prospective home buyers towards or away from certain neighborhoods based on their race.
In March 1968, keeping up his busy schedule, King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, to help support a strike by African-American sanitation workers, who were asking for equal pay and safer working conditions. King hoped that his support could help turn the tide and help the workers make some major gains. In April, he returned to Memphis to check back in and to address a religious gathering at the Mason Temple. Although his flight was delayed due to a bomb threat, King made it to the even on time and delivered his famous “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech. During the speech, he alluded to the bomb threat and to the increasing death threats he was receiving.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
After delivering the speech, King went back to his room at the Lorraine Motel to rest and get ready for another planned event scheduled for following day. Sadly, he would never make it to that event. On April 4th, 1968, as King stood on the balcony of his room early in the morning, a single bullet took his life. King was shot by escaped convict James Earl Ray, who fired the shot from a rooming house across the street. Although King was rushed to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital and underwent surgery to try and save his life, there was nothing they could do. King died that evening, without ever regaining consciousness. The charismatic, peace-loving social reformer had been taken from the world.
Following King’s assassination, a wave of riots swept across dozens of cities in the U.S., as supporters were overwhelmed with anger, shock, sadness, and frustration. In the wake of the riots, civil rights activists and other leaders gave speeches calling for calm. President Johnson declared April 7th a national day of mourning. On April 8th, King’s wife – Coretta Scott King – led a crowd of 40,000 mourners on a silent march through the streets of Memphis to honor Martin Luther King and his legacy. Finally, on April 9th, a formal funeral procession carried King’s body 3.5 miles through the streets of Atlanta, with more than 100,000 supporters and civil rights activists following behind. Two months later, his assassin – James Earl Ray – was discovered and arrested in England and quickly brought back to the US. Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison (where he eventually died) – bringing some form of closure to the tragic event. But King’s voice was noticeably absent from important national discussions, and millions of Americans still miss his idealistic vision – even today, 50 years after his death.
Nevertheless, although is life ended tragically, Martin Luther King Jr left behind a foundation of important achievements that have have the United States stronger, more equitable, and more just. And he is remembered fondly by Americans of all races throughout the nation. In the years since his death, King has been honored in countless ways for his outstanding contributions to civil rights. High schools and churches have been named after him; streets have been named after him in cities throughout the nation; a commemorative stamp was issued by the US Post Office; and numerous memorials have been established to honor him, including the massive, 30-foot, white granite sculpture next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which opened to the public in 2011. In addition, Martin Luther King Day was established as a federal holiday in 1983 to give honor to this remarkable man. Other than George Washington, King is the only American to have a national holiday designated for his birthday.
Although Martin Luther King was only publicly active for 12 years, his impact on the nation was profound and still reverberates to this day. His philosophy of nonviolence in the face of intense racial hatred challenged us to be better than we are – showing us in clear and practical terms that there is another way forward. His idealism gave hope to millions, proving that Americans from different backgrounds, with widely divergent views, can rise above our differences and find a way to work together, bound by our common humanity. And his achievements proved definitively that a dedicated group of activists, driven by a powerful and just cause, can transform a nation and push us toward a brighter, more equitable future.