A CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER PROMINENT FIGURE IN BLACK HISTORY – DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
The African American Baptist Leader and activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most visible voice and leader in the Civil Rights movement from 1955 until his death on April 4, 1968. King advanced human rights, based on the Christian values and non-violent advocacy of Mahatma Gandhi, through non-violence and civil disobedience. He was the son of Martin Luther King Sr, an early civil rights pioneer.
King came from a middle class family, steeped in Southern Black ministry tradition. Baptist preachers were in his family, and his parents were educated at the college, and King’s dad had succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of the prestigious Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The family was based on Auburn Avenue (or “Black Wall Street”), the busy residence of some of the successful Black firms in the country in the years before the civil rights movement, which was known as “Sweet Auburn.” Young Martin was well educated and grew up in a caring home.
King took part in and organized the protests in favor of the freedom to vote for everyone, employment opportunities, and other fundamental civil rights.
King was the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and organized the Montgomery bus boycott in 1995. As President of the SCLC, he helped lead the peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King helped organize March 1963 in Washington. He gave his famous “I Have a Dream” address.
He also followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, receiving his schooling in Georgia’s segregated public schools (from which he graduated at age 15). He received a B.A. from Morehouse College, an historically Black college in Atlanta. He went on to study theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected president of his senior class even though it was largely made up of white students.
While in Boston, he met and married Coretta Scott, who would become his partner , both in life and in his civil rights effort. The couple relocated to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, and had four children, after King was named pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT
Dr. King was also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was a member of Montgomery’s executive committee at the time of his relocation, and in December 1955, he organized a 382-day boycott of the city’s segregated public bus system. Negroes, the word for people of African origin at the time, were banished to the back of the bus and forced to give up their seat for a white person.
Since many Blacks lived in poverty or near-poverty, few could afford cars, so public buses were necessary for going to and from work and other areas. During the boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. became a focus for segregationists. Physical violence, detention, and the bombing of his home demonstrated the hazards he would face if he wanted to engage in the Civil Rights Movement.
For the next 11 years, he would appear at over 2,500 public gatherings and drive over six million miles. He also published posts and five books to help spread the news.
He was a participant in huge civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, which attracted the attention of all America—indeed, the international world—to the injustice faced by African Americans and their calls for reform. While imprisoned during the riots, he wrote “Message from a Birmingham Jail,” which became a blueprint for the Civil Rights Movement and elevated King to the ranks of America’s most illustrious essayists, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
IN 1958, HE SURVIVED A KNIFE ATTACK
On September 20, 1958, King was signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Harlem’s Blumstein’s department store when he was fired. Izola Curry, a mentally ill Black woman who believed King was plotting against her with communism, stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener, almost cutting the aorta. Officers Al Howard and Philip Romano provided first aid to King. King was treated for several weeks after having emergency surgery with three doctors: Aubre de Lambert Maynard, Emil Naclerio, and John W. V. Cordice. Curry were later judged to be mentally unfit to stand trial.
MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI’S INFLUENCE
His strategies for promoting social reform were inspired by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (known as Mahatma, “great soul”), who used peaceful civil disobedience to effect change in his native India (as he had done previously with some success to achieve concessions for Indian immigrants living in South Africa’s apartheid system). Boycotts of British commodities and institutions were among Gandhi’s strategies. (Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi was imprisoned repeatedly and eventually assassinated by a fanatic.)
While King emphasized nonviolence, even when met by violence, those who resisted reform did not uphold such niceties. Protestors were beaten, sprayed with high-pressure water hoses, tear-gassed, and attacked by police dogs; explosions at Black churches, houses, and other places claimed a variety of lives; some—both Black and white—who protested for civil rights such as the right to vote were killed, but the movement marched forward.
King was the most visible activist in Atlanta’s movement to register Black voters and the March on Washington, D.C., which attracted a quarter-million people. His appeal had spread beyond African Americans, attracting followers from all walks of life, all of whom were outraged at the brutality they witnessed on television news against unarmed protesters night after night.
In his inaugural address to the party as the president, King declared:
We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
These words brought a new voice, a professional rhetorician, an inspirational personality, and, in time, a dynamic new philosophy of civil struggle to the nation. Even though King’s home was bombed and his family’s life was jeopardized, he managed to lead the boycott until the city’s buses became desegregated one year and a few weeks later.
King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Chairman of the Nobel Committee said to him as he presented him with the award:
“Now that humanity has the atomic bomb, it is time to put our arms and armaments aside and listen to Martin Luther King’s message: ‘The alternative is between nonviolence and nonexistence.’ ”
King is the first person in the Western world to demonstrate that a battle can be fought without resorting to violence. In the course of his struggle, he was the first to make the message of brotherly love a reality, and he took this message to all men, all nations, and all races.
THE FREEDOM TO VOTE
After that, King and several others began to work on the issue of racism in elections. Many Southern states had laws in place at the time that made it difficult or impossible for African-Americans to vote. For example, they would impose additional taxes on African Americans, require them to pass literacy tests, or quiz them on the Constitution. White people were not required to do this stuff.
In 1963 and 1964, civil rights organizations in Selma, Alabama, attempted but failed to register African-Americans to vote. At the time, white people made up 99 percent of those who registered to vote in Selma. The government employees who registered voters, on the other hand, were all white. They declined to accept African-Americans as members.
In January 1965, these civil rights organizations contacted King and the SCLC for assistance. They began working on civil rights together. The following month, however, an African-American man named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a police officer while participating in a peaceful march. Jackson passed away. Many African-Americans were angered.
The Civil Rights Movement agreed to plan a march from Selma to Montgomery. Activists hoped to demonstrate how much African-Americans wished to vote by marching 54 miles (87 kilometers) to the state capital. They also decided to emphasize that they would not want racism or brutality to discourage them from achieving equal treatment.
The first march took place on March 7, 1965. The marchers were assaulted with clubs and tear gas by police officers and others they had selected to support them. They threatened the marchers with tossing them off the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Seventeen marchers were admitted to the hospital, and 50 others were wounded. This is known as Bloody Sunday. Images and footage of the marchers being beaten were widely published in newspapers and on television around the world. As a result of seeing these things, more people came forward supporting civil rights leaders. People traveled from all over the country to march with the protestors.
White people criticized James Reeb for his advocacy for human rights. On March 11, 1965, he passed away.
Finally, President Lyndon B. Johnson agreed to send troops from the US Army and the Alabama National Guard to defend the marchers. The activists marched from Selma to Montgomery along the “Jefferson Davis Highway” from March 21 to March 25. On March 25, 25,000 citizens marched into Montgomery, led by King and other officials. He delivered a speech entitled “How Long? Not for much longer” at the Alabama State Capitol. He told the marchers that it wouldn’t be long before they had equal rights, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The Civil Rights Act was passed by the United States on August 6, 1965. This legislation made it unconstitutional to deny anyone the right to vote based on their race.
JOB PERFORMED LATER
Following this, King continued to fight against poverty and the Vietnam War.
By fighting for equal rights and being such a strong man, King made enemies. The Ku Klux Klan did all they could to harm King’s image, especially in the South. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) kept a close eye on King. They bugged his mobile, his house, and the phones and as well as the homes of his friends.
King was in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. He intended to lead a demonstration in favor of garbage workers on strike. King was shot at 6:01 p.m. while standing on the balcony of his hotel room. The bullet passed through his right cheek and down his throat.
King was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in critical condition. His heart had stopped beating. Doctors cut open his chest and attempted to restart his pulse. They were, however, unable to save King’s life. He passed away at 7:05 p.m.
The death of King sparked protests in several towns.
In March 1969, James Earl Ray was found guilty of murdering Martin Luther King. He got a 99-year jail term. He later recanted his confession and gained some unlikely advocates, including members of the King family, before his death in 1998.
- Adams, Russell, Great Negroes Past and Present, pp. 106-107. Chicago, Afro-Am Publishing Co., 1963.
- Bennett, Lerone, Jr., What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Chicago, Johnson, 1964.
- I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King in Text and Pictures. New York, Time-Life Books, 1968.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., The Measure of a Man. Philadelphia. The Christian Education Press, 1959. Two devotional addresses.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., Strength to Love. New York, Harper & Row, 1963. Sixteen sermons and one essay entitled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”