Martin Luther King Jr. was an important figure of the postwar America (1950's) era. His writings, lectures, dialogues and spirituality touched the heart of a nation. His leadership encouraged people of all walks of life to reevaluate their lives for the better.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His parents were Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams. Martin grew up in a Christian household. The spirituality demonstrated by his parents influenced Martin's on beliefs. He also had three siblings.
King was an outstanding student as a youth. As a child people realized he was intellectually advance beyond his years.
He always kept books around him. He skipped both the 9th and 12th grades and entered Morehouse College at the age of 15. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. degree in sociology. Soon after he enrolled at Cozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. King achieved a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Cozer in 1951. Later that year he began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University. After receiving his doctorate degree from Boston University he moved back to Atlanta, Georgia. Martin's first job after graduation was at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He became the pastor of this assembly. Montgomery was a town of racial tensions and great discrimination in the 1950s. Because of the racial tensions King became a member of the local NAACP. Shortly after he was elected to its executive committee. The American Civil Rights Movement was pushed into full swing after an incident that happened in Montgomery on December 1, 1955. A forty-two year old woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man who came on the bus. Mrs. Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person. Mrs. Parks was a member of the NAACP and was well known in the Montgomery community. When the NAACP became aware of her arrest they posted bail for her release. This incident sparked a bus boycott by African-Americans. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed to oversee the bus boycott. Dr. King was elected as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. In November of 1956 King was informed that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the lower court decision that declared Alabama's laws on bus segregation unconstitutional. This ruling sparked new hope into the movement. Dr. King released the following statement:
This is the time that we must evince calm dignity and wise restraint. Emotions must not run wild. Violence must not come from any of us, for if we become victimized with violent intents, we will have walked in vain, and our twelve months of glorious dignity will be transformed into an eye of gloomy catastrophe. As we go back to the buses let us be loving enough to turn an enemy into a friend. We must now move from protest to reconciliation…With this dedication we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
The Supreme Court decision did not come without resistance. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist gangs increased their assaults against African-Americans. Buses were shot at and passengers were frequently attacked. Several Black churches were bombed in the area as well. Dr. King would receive many threatening letters and phone calls concerning his life. One day someone fired a shotgun through the front door of his house. Bombs were placed on his front porch on two different occasions. One bomb did not ignite, the other did major damage to the porch area.
In 1957 Dr. King advanced further as a leader for civil rights by creating the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On May 17 of that year he spoke to 15,000 in Washington D.C.
King became interested in nonviolent resistance. His ideas about nonviolent resistance came from his Christian foundation and Mohandas K. Gandhi's perspective. He frequently addressed values such as brotherhood, justice, human rights, and human dignity. He encouraged people to live by the highest standards of ethics and morality. King went to India in 1959 to learn more about Gandhi's teachings.
In 1960 King and his family moved back to Atlanta, Georgia. Due to his dedication, segregation was outlawed on all interstate transportation in 1961. All public transportation that went from one state to another could not segregate. While at a demonstration to desegregate public facilities in1963, he was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. While confined to this jail King wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". This letter was sent to several white ministers who felt King was going about things in the wrong fashion.
"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promise land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments, and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides--and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Banyan: "I will stay in jail until the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…" So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremist for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
In August of 1963 the largest civil rights demonstration in United States history was held; nearly 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. It was at this demonstration that King gave his famous "I Have A Dream Speech". This speech gave hope to many African-Americans. It touched the conscious of America.
"And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children--black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants--will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was the youngest person to ever achieve this honor. Soon after receiving this award congress passed legislation that helped African-Americans to vote. Before this legislation many states prevented blacks from voting by making them pay a poll tax. Most blacks were unable to pay this tax. Congress did away with this practice by establishing the 24th amendment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 stopped this practice and gave African-Americans the freedom to vote.
King believed that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. The Civil Rights Movement was changing things in the South, but little change was taking place in the North. Although they were not segregated, African-Americans had fewer opportunities than their white neighbors. In 1966, King moved to a slum apartment in Chicago, Illinois and began to organize protests. He wanted the city's discrimination against blacks for jobs, housing and schools to cease. In November of 1967 King announced the Poor People's Campaign to help the poor of all races to obtain jobs and equality. He announced a march to be held in Washington D.C. for the following year. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend this march.
Dr. King did not support the war in Vietnam. He felt that this war was unnecessary and the money spent on weapons could have been used to increase the standard of living among the poor. King once stated, "The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam." He went on to say, "The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America. Some people thought that his attention to the Vietnam War took away from the Civil Rights Movement.
In March of 1958, Dr. King led a march in March in Memphis, Tennessee. It was the first of his marches that was met with violence. It was at this march that he delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. On April 4, 1968 King was assassinated by a sniper's bullet as he stood on the balcony outside his hotel room. His death shocked the nation and put it in a state of turmoil. Riots erupted in over one hundred cities across the nation. King was buried in Atlanta. Within a week of his assassination Congress passed the Open Housing Act. In 1977 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Metal of Freedom for his outstanding work. No one has done more to advance civil rights in North America than Dr. King. His persuasive ability and charisma united many people for the better. He was a surgeon who operated on the heart of a nation. A nation whose heart was diseased and beating irregularly. Not only did he operate…he gave our nation the prescription of love to prevent complications from arising.
"Let nobody fool you, all the loud noises we hear today are nothing but the death groans of the dying system. The old order is passing away; the new order is coming into being. But whenever there is anything new there are new responsibilities. As we think of this coming new world we must think of the challenge that we confront and the new responsibilities that stand before us. We must prepare to live in a new world."
Martin Luther King Jr., August 11, 1956