Martin Luther King, Jr.
1929 - 1968
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born the grandson of a sharecropper on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA on the eve of the Great Depression. King was sheltered from the extreme poverty of those years, because his father, a self-made, well-respected pastor, always put family first. Nonetheless King developed at an early age a deep sympathy for the desperation of people, both black and white, standing in Depression breadlines. There was no protection, however, for any blacks in the South from the oppression of Jim Crow segregation that existed a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14, and 15th Amendments which guaranteed all African Americans equality. King was the voice, the conscience, and the inspiration that moved a nation to fulfill that promise, and to realize the Dream.
Growing up in Atlanta, King was a typical teenager who enjoyed socializing more than studying. His exceptional oratory skills were apparent even at age 14, however, when he turned his personal experiences with segregation into a speech about civil rights titled “The Negro and the Constitution”:
We cannot have an enlightened democracy with one great group living in ignorance. We cannot have a healthy nation with one-tenth of the people ill-nourished, sick, harboring germs of disease which recognize no color lines – obey Jim Crow laws. We cannot have a nation orderly and sound with one group so ground down and thwarted that it is almost forced into unsocial attitudes and crime…Today thirteen million black sons and daughters of our forefathers continue the fight for the translation of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments from writing on the printed page to an actuality. We believe with them that “if freedom is good for any it is good for all,” that we may conquer Southern hate, that if the franchise is given to Negroes, they will be vigilant and defend, even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason and destruction by her enemies.
King won the competition and yet, with his teacher, was forced to give up theirs seats to white passengers and stand in humiliation for hours on the bus ride home because there were no seats left for blacks. King’s instinct was to not move from his seat. He ultimately complied with his teacher’s wish to obey the law.
These personal experiences of discrimination were many including one that King acknowledged had a tremendous effect on his development as a child:
From the age of three I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but he was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school—separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me.
He had received mentorship opposing racism by observing his father confront such injustices when they were together:
I remember a trip to a downtown shoe store with Father when I was still small. We had sat down in the first empty seats at the front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely: "I'll be happy to wait on you if you'll just move to those seats in the rear." Dad immediately retorted… "We'll either buy shoes sitting here," my father retorted, "or we won't buy shoes at all." Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious… he played a great part in shaping my conscience. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, "I don't care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it”.
My father has always had quite an interest in civil rights. He has been president of the NAACP in Atlanta, and he always stood out in social reform. From before I was born, he had refused to ride the city buses after witnessing a brutal attack on a load of Negro passengers. He led the fight in Atlanta to equalize teachers' salaries and was instrumental in the elimination of Jim Crow elevators in the courthouse.
King’s growing revulsion toward segregation came to a head at the end of a trip north in 1944:
Just before going to college I went to Simsbury, Connecticut, and worked for a whole summer on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents were doing. One Sunday, we went to church in Simsbury, and we were the only Negroes there. On Sunday mornings I was the religious leader and spoke on any text I wanted to 107 boys. I had never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.
After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta. The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.
Because WWII had sent so many young men to war, King was accepted to Morehouse College at age 15 despite his mediocre reading level. His parents pressured him to join the ministry as both his grandfathers and his father had done, although King preferred law or medicine. A professor in religious studies and the Morehouse College President influenced his decision by encouraging critical thinking and philosophical exploration, which ultimately swayed King into the religion program. He graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and as an ordained minister in 1948 at age 19.
To further his ministry training, King then attended Crozer Theological Seminary (a predominantly white Baptist school in Pennsylvania) where he excelled at his studies, joined the NAACP and a multi-college organization that discussed interracial issues, and graduated as valedictorian. It was at Crozer that King was immersed in philosophy and discovered Gandhi’s nonviolent theory: Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.
King next pursued a doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology saying of his time there: …the next stage of my intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence came during my doctoral studies at Boston University. It was while in Boston that he met and fell in love with Coretta Scott, an attractive singer whose gentle manner and air of repose did not disguise her lively spirit. A man who seemed to know in advance where his life was going, he announced to her on their first date that he wanted to marry her. His wish was fulfilled on June 18, 1953. Coretta’s preference was to stay in the north where they experienced less racial prejudice, but Martin felt drawn back to the south to be of service to his people. Martin accepted a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in May of 1954, where he also finished his dissertation and received his PhD in 1955. Coretta delivered their first baby, Yolanda, in April 1955. Then Rosa Parks was arrested on Friday, December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, and King’s idea of a simple life of a pastor, husband and father was forever changed – at 25 years of age!
The day after Park’s arrest, the NAACP organized a bus boycott, as suggested by the Women’s Political Council, by asking the pastors in Montgomery to recruit the members of their churches. King delivered the message in his Sunday service as did most of the black pastors. On Monday, there were almost no black riders on the buses – proof that the black community of Montgomery had had enough of Jim Crow and were ripe for change.
Black activists held a meeting on Monday afternoon, formed an organization dubbed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and voted King as the President. King was to address the first official gathering of the MIA in a few hours. He dashed home, told Coretta the news, and had 20 minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life”. When his panic subsided, he prayed and wrote an outline for a speech that would rally the black community into action:
…We are here in a general sense because first and foremost we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth…
And we are not wrong….If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality…Let us be Christian in all of our actions….
Standing beside love is always justice and we are only using the tools of justice.
…as we prepare ourselves for what lies ahead, let us go out with a grim and bold determination that we are going to stick together….when history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, “There lived a race of people, a black people, ‘fleecy locks and black complexion,’ a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.”
The audience received King’s speech with enthusiasm, and when the applause died down, other leaders stepped forward to explain the plan to continue the boycott until their demands were met. This two part strategy, whereby King would speak first to energize the meeting followed by the instructions delivered by others, became the protocol for much of the movement.
When arbitration with white officials in Montgomery did not return black riders to the buses, King was labeled, by whites, as being a roadblock to a resolution. Some whites retaliated against black riders, and yet other whites that were supportive of the movement participated in the carpool campaign that replaced the buses. In January 1956, King received a phone threat stating that if he did not leave town in three days, he would be killed and his house destroyed. A few days later, his home was bombed while he was away. Fortunately Coretta and Yolanda, who were at home, were unharmed.
…It seems that God decided to use Montgomery as the proving ground for the struggle and triumph of freedom and justice in America. It is one of the ironies of our day that Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy, is being transformed into Montgomery, the cradle of freedom and justice.
In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation on buses unconstitutional. This was a critical step forward that built upon the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1954 to outlaw segregation in public schools. The new legislation did not reach the local level until late in December, but black riders in Montgomery were ready to use the buses again. With these two Supreme Court decisions, the door to a new era had been unlocked, but there was still much to do to keep the doors to freedom and racial equality opened. King reflected on the achievement:
Montgomery marked the psychological turning point for the…struggle against segregation. In Montgomery, all across the board, at one and the same time, the rank and file rose up and revolted, by refusing to ride the buses.
Also, Montgomery contributed a new weapon…the social tool of nonviolent resistance. It was a weapon first applied on the American scene in a collective way in Montgomery. In that city too, it was honed well for future use. It was effective in that it had a way of disarming the opponent. It exposed his moral defenses. It weakened his morale, and at the same time it worked on his conscience. It also provided a method for Negroes to struggle to secure moral ends through moral means. Thus, it provided a creative force through which men could channel their discontent…The Montgomery Negro had acquired a new sense of somebodiness and self-respect, and had a new determination to achieve freedom and human dignity no matter what the cost.
Expanding the Movement
In January 1957, black leaders met in Atlanta to form a new organization they called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in order to take nonviolent resistance to other cities around America. Eventually King was voted president of the SCLC and moved back to Atlanta where he co-pastored in his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist. Enthused by the formation of the newly liberated African nation, Ghana, King and a committee from the SCLC met with President Eisenhower and asked him to enforce the rights of blacks under the Constitution. Eisenhower’s attention, however, was focused abroad as the Cold War continued to ramp up: …it was strange to me that the federal government was more concerned about what happened in Budapest than what happened in Birmingham. I thought Eisenhower believed that integration would be a fine thing. But I thought he felt that the more you push it, the more tension it would create, so, just wait a few more years and it will work itself out… President Eisenhower was a man of integrity and goodwill, but I am afraid that on the question of integration he didn't understand the dimensions of social change involved nor how the problem was to be worked out.
Despite the lack of early support from Eisenhower, and a near successful attempt on King’s life at a book signing in Harlem, the movement continued. An effort at integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in response to the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, was met with more violence. Realizing the danger, Eisenhower finally took action and sent the U.S. Army in to protect the children. Soldiers escorted the students to class the whole school year. From this incident, King realized that until blacks had political power, until they registered and voted, they would always be held back. Only through the black vote could they ensure that segregationists would not be reelected. To overcome this, …King and the SCLC decided to launch the Crusade for Citizenship, which would educate Negroes about voting and show the country the obstacles Negroes experienced when going to the polls.
Even though these decisions regarding desegregation came from the Supreme Court, racists completely rejected them. The segregationist defied the new laws by escalating their harassments, initiating a “wave of terror” in Montgomery, and bombing the homes and churches of black leaders. For years to come the struggle for equality in the South continued nonetheless. Progress was slow and marked by physical attacks, arrests, imprisonment, and lawsuits, while IRS investigations continued against King and other black leaders. In communities throughout the South, blacks encouraged by the initial success in Montgomery stepped up demonstrations against segregation, segregationist whites held counter demonstrations, black students held lunch counter sit-ins, and police brutality continued in cities across the South including: Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Birmingham, Alabama; as well as the University of Mississippi. On some occasions the attacks on the black protesters were so severe that many fought back to protect themselves. When this occurred, King intervened to bring the movement back to its non-violent roots. In many cases King was arrested and imprisoned himself.
In April 1963, the movement focused on Birmingham, which was considered the most segregated city in the America. Segregationist leaders, Governor George Wallace and Eugene “Bull” Connor met the non-violent protest time and again with snarling police dogs, high-pressure water hoses, clubs, and cattle prods which was all caught on national television and beamed into millions of homes throughout the nation. This escalation in brutality brought greater support from the US Presidency, which swung further in King’s favor. By this time President Kennedy had taken office and his Administration was now more engaged than the previous Administration. Kennedy assistance in the struggle to desegregate the South began by quickly sending federal troops into Birmingham as well as other skirmishes.
King was jailed during this action and while incarcerated, wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to the clergy of Birmingham who spoke out against the nonviolent demonstrations for desegregation:
…I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
With more than 3,000 people already in jail, thousands more continuing with the protest, and constant media attention, a settlement was worked out between reluctant Birmingham business owners and King who secured a promise of integration for the entire city. The victory in Birmingham secured King’s fame as the greatest spokesman for Negro people in the United States. For President Kennedy, the events in Birmingham were a sign that the country was truly ready for change – and new civil rights laws.
A Nation (and the World) Marches in Support
On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people, black and white, from every state in the nation peacefully gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to show their support for the growing civil rights movement, and all those who had sacrificed their lives for that cause.
There can be no doubt, even in the true depths of the most prejudiced minds, that the August 28 March on Washington was the most significant and moving demonstration for freedom and justice in all the history of the country.
It was at this gathering that King gave one of the most memorable speeches for freedom and justice in America:
…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.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!...
Sadly, within months of the March on Washington, on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, a bomb blast ripped through the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham killing four young girls. The black community was terribly shaken by the vicious killing of four innocent children and vented its outrage by rioting in Birmingham. King attempted to quell the riot and console the mourners:
These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated… Yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity…God still has a way of wringing good out of evil… The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood.
Two months later, the Civil Rights Movement lost one of its most powerful advocates and supporters when President John F. Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Despite, or perhaps more likely because of his assassination, the Civil Rights Act which offered greater protections for the right to vote was signed into law on July 2, 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson. King was there for the signing:
Both houses of Congress approved a monumental, indeed, historic affirmation of Jefferson’s ringing truth that “all men are created equal.” First recommended and promoted by President Kennedy, this bill was passed because of the overwhelming support and perseverance of millions of American, Negro and white… It came as a bright interlude in the long and sometimes turbulent struggle for civil rights: the beginning of a second emancipation proclamation.
In December 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in non-violent protest against racial segregation in the America. It was widely recognized that King’s efforts had moved humanity one step closer to its realization of universal human rights.
Sensing the End
International recognition notwithstanding, King pressed on realizing there was still much to be done. The cycle of non-violent protest, which was met with violence by the local police and residents, was repeated time and again in the South. In 1965, the movement set out to secure voting rights for the largely poor and under-educated black population in Selma, Alabama. Restrictive city ordinances and literacy tests made it nearly impossible for blacks to register to vote. At the time, only 350 out of 15,000 local blacks were registered voters. In order to overcome this and further secure voting rights there, a march from Selma to Montgomery was organized. This march to take their protest to Governor Wallace became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The violence was not limited to that one day, however, and there were no color barriers to the violence as both blacks and sympathetic white supporters were brutalized and killed. At the start, the effort in Selma was focused only on correcting the wrongs there. As King wrote: “… our adversaries met us with such unrestrained brutality that they enlarged the issues to a national scale. The ironic and splendid result of the small Selma project was nothing less than the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The new law resulted in a quarter-million new black voters within months of its signing.
For several more years King took his efforts around the country including the North where segregation existed in many of the large cities including Chicago, New York, and Boston even though no outward signs could be found, as in the South.
On March 16, 1968 King marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. The disorganized march turned violent as some protesters began smashing shop windows. King quickly called off the march, and was taken away from the scene by his aides. Distraught over the outcome, King decided to return to Memphis again to lead a peaceful march, as was his original intent. After learning of death threats upon his arrival in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he addressed a crowd and urged them to support the striking sanitation workers. He spoke these prophetic words:
…I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop….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…
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator – that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral…I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and to serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness….
…If I can do my duty as a Christian ought, if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, if I can spread the message as the Master taught, then my living will not be in vain.
The next day Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at age 39. The world lost an extraordinary ambassador for human and civil rights. In a rage, the black community rioted in many cities. Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and the other leaders set aside their grief and continued forward with the marches and campaigns that had been already set into action, believing that it was what King would have wanted.
King left behind his wife Coretta to care for their four children on her own, which she did by publishing books such as his autobiography utilizing his speeches and diaries, and speaking engagements of her own. Coretta also immediately began to plan for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Peace and Nonviolence in Atlanta. Of Coretta, Martin wrote:
I am indebted to my wife, Coretta, without whose love, sacrifices, and loyalty neither life nor work would bring fulfillment. She has given me words of consolation when I needed them and a well-ordered home where Christian love is a reality. …I am convinced that if I had not had a wife with the fortitude, strength, and calmness of Corrie, I could not have withstood the ordeals and tensions surrounding the movement.
In subsequent years, Martin Luther King, Jr. was further recognized for his contributions in promoting social equality and human rights in America. In 1983, the United States government passed a law that made the third Monday of every January a national holiday in honor of King. In 2004, Martin and Coretta together were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
[King] did not create the civil rights movement, but became one of its most accomplished, outspoken, and passionate members. In only 14 years he had become the keystone of a massive shift in social structure in America. King was an inspiration to people of every color and faith around the world. He taught us that a unified people have a greater voice, and that nonviolent resistance can elicit change. He brought forth from the disenfranchised and downtrodden a renewed sense of self-respect and dignity, and inspired us all to contribute to the promise of the American creed, that all people are created equal.
Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998) 9-10.
Tonya Bolden. M.L.K.: Journey of a King, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 2007) 16-17.
Amy Pastan. DK biography: Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: DK Publishing, Inc. 2004) 38.