Today, your friendly neighborhood history geek is recognizing and remembering one of the most inspirational men of the 20th century today. God Bless you Martin Luther King Jr.
The Man with a Dream
The second child of pastor Martin Luther King Sr. and schoolteacher Alberta Williams King, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. He and his siblings; older sister, Christine King (Farris) and younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King, MLK grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, then home to some of the most prominent and prosperous African Americans in the country.
He was a gifted student and attended the Alma Mater of his father and maternal grandfather; Morehouse College, where he studied law and medicine. He didn’t intend to follow his father’s footsteps into being a reverend, but after being mentored by Morehouse’s president Dr. Benjamin Mays, he changed his mind. Dr. Benjamin Mays was an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality, and he greatly inspired the young Martin Luther King Jr.
MLK graduated in 1948 and then entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, earning a Bachelor of Divinity degree. He also won a prestigious fellowship and was elected president of his predominantly white senior class. He then enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, completing his courses in 1953 and earning a doctorate in systematic theology two years later.
It was in Boston where he met his wife, the lovely Coretta Scott; a young singer from Alabama who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They married in 1953 and settled in Montgomery Alabama where Dr. King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He and Coretta had four children; Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.
The 1950s America was when the ball started to roll for Civil Rights, starting with the Brown v.s. The Board of Education in Topeka in 1954; a case that declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and put an end to federal tolerance of racial segregation. Montgomery Alabama was a highly segregated city when the King family lived there in the 1950s, and they had only been living there for a year when, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Chapter, refused to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was arrested, drawing national attention to Montgomery Alabama and making it the center of the Civil Rights movement when activists coordinated a bus boycott that lasted for 381 days and placed a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. The activists chose Martin Luther King Jr. as the protest’s leader and official spokesman.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating on buses unconstitutional in 1956, MLK was already nationally known as an inspirational proponent of organized, nonviolent resistance. In 1957, he and other civil rights activists that mostly consisted of pastors found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; a group committed to achieving full equality for African Americans through nonviolence. Dr. King remained at the helm of this organization until his death.
In his role as SCLC president, Dr. King traveled across the country and around the world, giving lectures on nonviolent protest and civil rights, as well as writing books and meeting with religious leaders, political leaders, and activists. He even met Ghandi, one of his greatest inspirations, in 1959.
In 1960, the King family moved to Atlanta where Dr. King joined his father as a co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was also during this time when Dr. King and the other members of the SCLC became key players in several of the most significant Civil Rights battles of the 1960s. In 1963, the SCLC’s commitment to nonviolence was put to the test during the Birmingham Campaign, in which activists marched, arranged sit-ins, and boycotted to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices, and other injustices in one of America’s most radically divided cities. Dr. King was arrested for his involvement in this, and it was in jail where he penned the civil rights manifesto known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which was an eloquent defense of civil disobedience addressed to a group of white clergymen who criticized his tactics.
Later in 1963, Dr. King met with a number of civil rights and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a peaceful political rally designed to shed light on the injustices African Americans continued to face across the country. It was held on August 28th and had almost 300,000 participants, and is known as the watershed moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement and played a large part in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The march culminated in Dr. King’s most famous address, known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, which was a spirited call for peace and equality that many consider a masterpiece of rhetoric. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King shared his vision for a future in which “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of it’s creed; ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” The speech and march cemented King’s reputation at home and abroad; later that year he was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine and in 1964 became the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the spring of 1965, King’s elevated profile drew international attention to the violence that erupted between white segregationists and peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, where the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized a voter registration campaign. Captured on television, the brutal scene outraged many Americans and inspired supporters from across the country to gather in Selma and take part in a march to Montgomery led by King and supported by President Lyndon Johnson, who sent in federal troops to keep the peace. That August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote–first awarded by the 15th Amendment–to all African Americans.
The events in Selma deepened a growing rift between Martin Luther King Jr. and young radicals who repudiated his nonviolent methods and commitment to working within the established political framework. As more militant black leaders such as Stokely Carmichael rose to prominence, King broadened the scope of his activism to address issues such as the Vietnam War and poverty among Americans of all races. In 1967, Dr. King and the SCLC embarked on an ambitious program known as the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a massive march on the capital.
Sadly and tragically, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, where he had traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the wake of his death, a wave of riots swept major cities across the country, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning. James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. (He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.)
After years of campaigning by activists, members of Congress and Coretta Scott King, among others, in 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a U.S. federal holiday in honor of King. Observed on the third Monday of January, it was first celebrated in 1986.