Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 into one of the most cathartic periods of American history. African Americans were enslaved on American soil for more than 246 years between 1619 and 1865. Following the Reconstruction era in the late 1800’s and well into the 1960’s, it was the status quo for African Americans to be terrorized and disfranchised by social, educational and employment discrimination, racial hatred, mass violence and lynching. Blacks in America at all socio-economic and political levels were often treated as second-class citizens without the right to vote, without enforced protections of the constitution and without federal civil rights.
From this national schism that virtually created two Americas, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into the racially segregated and strained environment of Atlanta, Georgia in the deep South. There was little to portend at that time that this son of a Baptist pastor would someday lead a movement that would change the cultural and political foundations of the country and restore the civil and human rights of America’s African American citizenry. There was little still in his early life to disclose that he might one day undertake the long and arduous labor to try and bring these two factions of America together into one indivisible, equitable nation. Perhaps his father inspired by the life of the great reformer Martin Luther felt the stirring of an inexplicable calling when his son was five years old because he subsequently changed both of their names from Michael to Martin Luther. He had only recently returned from a trip to Europe where he had been profoundly inspired by the life of the German Protestant reformer. This was possibly the first of many twists of fate that would pull a reluctant Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the path of his destiny.
King was a gifted student who skipped two grades in high school before enrolling in Morehouse College in 1944 at the age of 15. Initially, he had no plan or intention of following in the ministerial footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather. It would fall to the president of the college, Benjamin E. Mays to intervene and redirect a ‘popular’ but academically ‘unmotivated’ young man to become a minister. Mays would also have a significant influence on King’s spiritual and civic development. He helped him to understand how the Church as an institution could be a useful and powerful tool of social change. King was ordained before he graduated from the college with a degree in Sociology.
King attended Theological school in Pennsylvania and graduated valedictorian and student body president. He completed his doctoral studies at Boston University when he was 25 years old. He also met his future wife Coretta Scott at the university and they were married in June 1953. That year he also became the pastor of the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The couple would have four children. Coretta Scott King would play a pivotal and influential role on the world stage as the wife of Dr. King and as an activist for global human and civil rights throughout her life.
As a young pastor in Montgomery, his community and public profile grew steadily and King became known as an imposing and impressive orator. This and the fact that he was a new member of the community brought him to the attention of the Montgomery Improvement Association and made him a particularly appealing candidate to lead the organization because he was unfettered by competing interests or ties to other groups. The association’s mission was to organize protests in support of the black community. He was invited to be the association’s president and he accepted.
King was now well positioned for an immanent shift in his life and the country was also about to experience a subtle but dramatic turn in its history. The civil rights handwriting was on the wall in March of 1955 when a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested and taken to jail. The NAACP wanted to use this incident to test their case against segregation but ultimately felt they could not risk diminishing their reputation with the broader community or upset their largely religious constituency when it was learned that the girl was pregnant.
Another opportunity presented itself that same year in December when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the colored section of the bus for standing white passengers. She was also jailed and fined. That evening King along with NAACP leadership and other civil rights leaders began to plan the citywide Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks was a well-respected individual in the community and a long-standing member and chapter secretary for the NAACP.
After a century of struggle for social justice under the law, African Americans were simply fed up with the relentless discrimination and violence perpetrated to victimize them. In earnest, they began an unprecedented fight for liberation and equality. Many felt that integration should not be rushed but taken in measured incremental steps but King felt that they had waited long enough, saying,
I concede of nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism… We come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
The Civil Rights Movement had begun.
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for more than a year. People in the African American community walked to work, endured harassment, violence and intimidation. King’s home and the home of others in leadership were bombed. The city suffered financial losses and faced mounting legal action. King stated that, “We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation… we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls…” Lawsuits and appeals made their way through the courts to the Supreme Court and Montgomery was forced by the highest court in the land to lift its law mandating segregated public transportation.
This hard-earned victory established King as a civil rights leader in Alabama and brought him national and international attention but as important as the victory was, it fell short of King’s penultimate vision – to end racial segregation and voting discrimination in the south and elsewhere. There was still much work to do and King, at that time may not have been certain that he was the one able or ready to do it.
One day in l956 after yet another threatening call related to the boycott in which he was told that his family and his home would be blown up unless he left out of town — he received an epiphany. He heard an inner voice that called him by name — summoning and ‘convicting’ him to stand up for TRUTH, stand up for JUSTICE and stand up for RIGHTEOUSNESS. King understood that he had to find his courage and lose his fear of death. He stated that, “It is not how long you live but how well… I am trying to do what is right.” He determined that his was a moral battle and it was his sacrifice to choose and make. King was now ready to walk into his destiny and embrace this messianic struggle.
In 1959, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India. This trip also encouraged and helped him to increase his commitment to the civil rights struggle. He recognized both the power and the dignity of non-violence and saw that it was the path to freedom for African Americans. Non-violence as a strategy he believed was the “morally excellent” way to deal with the injustice of racism.
America was waking up to the excruciating reality and consequences of its history and the insidious forces of racism. In the 60’s, America was rudely awakened from its complacency by the swelling tides of social change, social reform and the Vietnam War. King moved back to Atlanta to co-pastor Ebenezer Church along with his father. Atlanta would give him a broader platform and greater public exposure. By 1960, he was a nationally prominent figure and the face and voice of the civil rights movement. King eventually took his fight to the lunch counters along with young people and students. In an act of passive resistance, he along with the other protestors were dragged from the lunch counters and arrested. King would be released but faced continuing harassment by the authorities and was re-imprisoned. President John F. Kennedy would have to intervene to secure his release.
Efforts were underway across the country to register black voters and ‘get out the vote’ campaigns especially in the south were spreading to politically empower the African American community. King encouraged the young people and students to continue their non-violent protests. These students organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and traveled from all over the country to the south to sit at segregated lunch counters in city stores where they were subjected to extreme verbal and physical abuse. Differences in strategy and objectives would create riffs as the SNCC provided a platform to a group of young, prominent and more militant activists and leaders including Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and H. Rapp Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin). Nevertheless, by the end of the l960s, these non-violent sit-ins would ultimately end segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.
The message and energy of the civil rights movement continued to accelerate and gain attention as protests, boycotts, marches and civil disobedience threw a spotlight on the inequalities that were rampant in America. It also highlighted the anger and resistance of local authorities who would exercise and use the cruelest and most inhumane measures to maintain the status quo. The country watched in horror and disbelief as fire hoses, cattle prods, and police dogs were used and discharged on non-violent protestors in the south that included men, women, the elderly and children – peacefully marching in demand of their inalienable and equal rights in the land of the free.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.
For the country and for the civil rights movement 1963 was a landmark year. Medgar Evers was assassinated and four little girls died in the bombing of a Birmingham church.
In August, the historic March on Washington would draw more than 200,000 to Washington, D.C. and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King would make his famous I Have a Dream Speech on August 28th. This was not the first time that a March on Washington was proposed and a hesitant President Kennedy finally gave his endorsement after many security precautions were put into place. Three months later Kennedy would lose his life.
On the day of King’s speech, fate again intervened in perhaps the most important twist of all. King had agreed to speak last as everyone else wanted an earlier slot to get the media attention and exposure. It was also his plan to speak for only a few minutes from a prepared speech. It was not to be.
Mahalia Jackson had just finished a classic spiritual and moved to stand behind King. The crowd was stirred by her voice and the emotional tenor of the afternoon had been elevated. King began his prepared speech but in response to the energy of the crowd, Jackson called out to him, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!” The dream was a theme that King had referred to in earlier speeches. He had a special bond with the singer and often called to have her sing to him on the phone during some of his most troubling moments. King heard her request and abandoned his prepared notes. He began to speak about his dream and the destiny he envisioned for his children, the country and all Americans. It was a speech that would be heard around the world and throughout the decades by succeeding generations. His speechwriter Clarence Jones would recall that, “It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body…”
In that moment, the resonance of freedom vibrated throughout the country. After the March on Washington, the country could no longer stave off or delay the rights of African Americans. Americans of all races and creeds began to push back and question the country’s Jim Crow laws and the 2nd class treatment of citizens especially in the south. The Civil Rights Act of l964 was passed and written into law ending the desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing segregation and discrimination in publicly owned facilities. Martin Luther King also received the Nobel Peace Prize later that same year.
Battles were being won but the war was far from over. Demonstrators and protestors continued to face violence, brutality and death. In l965 in Selma, during a peaceful march in Alabama later called Bloody Sunday television screens across the country filled with images of marchers being beaten and mortally wounded by state and local enforcement as they peacefully marched across the Pettus Bridge. Later in the year, a procession of 2500 blacks and whites together joined King to once again cross the bridge. In a Ghandi-like gesture, King led the marchers to kneel and pray. They abandoned the march to avoid another confrontation. But a few weeks later they reorganized to march from Selma to Montgomery. President Johnson ordered US army troops to protect the protestors. That day a crowd of 2000 people swelled to over 25,000. Johnson signed the l965 Voting Rights Act.
Over the next few years, King worked to expand his efforts into other American cities in the north and south but faced criticism and challenges from many factions. King worked to expand his political base taking on issues of discrimination, poverty and the Vietnam War. He wanted to create massive action programs across America and a multiracial coalition to address the primary and prevalent issues of economic disenfranchisement.
King was embattled but remained optimistic holding fast to the faith and vision of his 1963 speech but he also began to feel that the dream he had envisioned was slipping into a nightmare. He recognized that legislation can be enacted but one cannot “legislate a change of heart.” Racism was alive, well and all the more deceptive in its now less visible form. He acknowledged the phenomenon of white backlash, a subtle form of discrimination and racial prejudice that circumvented genuine racial and economic parity. Interestingly, both education and economic disparity between whites and blacks increased after the Civil Rights Bill passed as the promises of justice remained unfulfilled and the subtle forces of oppression persisted.
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.
By 1968, the marches, jails, and constant threats against his life were taking their toll. He had been arrested over 20 times, endured many attacks to his person, property and family. He survived a stabbing and the bombing of his home. He undoubtedly felt that his efforts were diminished because in the face of a shifting cultural landscape, the progress of real, consequential change in America was stagnate. King had also been urged to run for the 1968 presidency based on his stand against the Vietnam war and the problems of the poor but he had no interest in a presidential candidacy and declined. He felt that his dharma lay beyond the realm of partisan politics and understood clearly that without economic redress or reparations there was little chance to make a substantial difference in the lives of African Americans. He was confronted with the recognition that the legacy of slavery and American justice had only provided for a “freedom to hunger and a freedom to be thrown to the winds and rains of heaven.”
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 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. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
On April 3, 1968 — aware that the battlefield before him was to stand for human dignity and economic parity, King felt compelled to take on another crusade. He had been invited to speak in support of a labor strike that had been mounted in Memphis by sanitation workers. The issues of the day and the darkening skies of political unrest were not enough to turn him away. He felt that he had to step in and do the right thing for these workers and all Americans. He had to speak for the voiceless and encourage a country to step up and recognize the responsibility of its creed.
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. Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth…and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
That evening on April 3, King gave his last and most prophetic speech. He had earlier stated that he felt as if he was ‘standing at the beginning of time looking at a panoramic view of human history.’ “I have been to the Mountaintop,” he said to a hushed crowd sensing the portentous tenor of his words, “and I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…” The words sent chills through the crowd.
The very next day a bullet would take his life and one of the most profound and powerful voices of non-violence and the civil rights movement for this country would pass into history.
The riots that ensued across the country – in Baltimore, in Washington, DC. In Atlanta, in California, in Ohio – and elsewhere – in more than 125 cities were the inevitable result of mounting angers, tensions, stagnation and a population frustrated to the breaking point – like the unstable air before a storm – over persisting de facto segregation, discrimination, police brutality, poverty and the rhetoric but little action of social progress.
The National Guard rolled through the streets of the nation’s capitol and many other cities for the first time in modern memory. Damages mounted to the hundreds of millions. The scars of the 1968 riots can still be seen and felt in the urban landscapes of many cities today.
The life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been honored by a national memorial and holiday. There are a number of schools, public buildings and avenues across the nation that bear his name. If the choice had been his alone, he most likely would have preferred a quiet life – dedicating his energy and devotion to his community and family but he responded instead to an inner spiritual calling and embraced a destiny and vision of genuine equality and brotherhood for all. He chose rightly and well making the sacrifice to stand for democracy and social justice. He demonstrated in his life and in his person the art and power of peace and non-violence in a country not quite ready to realize his dream.
When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”