The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Ph. D., was a Nobel Laureate, Baptist minister, and African American civil rights activist. He is one of the most significant leaders in U. S. history and in the modern history of non-violence, and is considered a hero, peacemaker and martyr by many people around the world.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. . He graduated from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology in 1948. His application to Yale Divinity School was rejected, and he graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951. He received his Ph. D. in Systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. Later, however, scholars at the King Papers project found that King plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation and academic papers, although Boston University did not revoke King’s degree.
Civil rights activism.
In 1954, King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which began when Rosa Parks refused to comply with Jim Crow law and surrender her seat to a white man. The boycott lasted for 381 days. The situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation on intrastate buses.
Following the campaign, King was instrumental in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, a group created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King continued to dominate the
organization until his death. The organization’s nonviolent principles were criticized by the younger, more radical blacks and challenged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee then headed by James Foreman.
The SCLC derived its membership principally from black communities associated with Baptist churches. King was an adherent of the philosophies of nonviolent civil disobedience used successfully in India by Mahatma Gandhi, and he applied this philosophy to the protests organized by the SCLC. King correctly identified that organized, nonviolent protest against the racist system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Indeed, journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that made the Civil Rights Movement the single most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.
King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, fair hiring, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into United States law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King and the SCLC applied the principles of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out in often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities. Sometimes these confrontations turned violent. King and the SCLC were instrumental in the unsuccessful protest movement in Albany, in 1961 – 1962, where divisions within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated efforts; in the Birmingham protests in the summer of 1963; and in the protest in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964. King and the SCLC joined forces with SNCC in Selma, Alabama, in December 1964, where SNCC had been working on voter registration for a number of months.
The March on Washington.
King and SCLC, in partial collaboration with SNCC, then attempted to organise a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, for March 25, 1965. The first attempt to march on March 7, was aborted due to mob and police violence against the demonstrators. This day since has become known as Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was a major turning point in the effort to gain public support for the Civil Rights Movement, the clearest demonstration up to that time of the dramatic potential of King’s nonviolence strategy. King, however, was not present. After meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, he had attempted to delay the march until March 8, but the march was carried out against his wishes and without his presence by local civil rights workers. The footage of the police brutality against the protestors was broadcast extensively across the nation and aroused a national sense of public outrage.
The second attempt at the march on March 9 was ended when King stopped the procession at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, an action which he seemed to have negotiated with city leaders beforehand. This unexpected action aroused the surprise and anger of many within the local movement. The march finally went ahead fully on March 25, with the agreement and support of President Johnson, and it was during this march that Willie Ricks coined the phrase “Black Power” .
King, representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The other leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were: Roy Wilkins, NAACP; Whitney Young, Jr., Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality. For King, this role was another which courted controversy, as he was one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of President John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. Kennedy initially opposed the march outright, because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation, but the organizers were firm that the march would proceed.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks in the South and a very public opportunity to place organizers’ concerns and grievances squarely before the seat of power in the nation’s capital. Organizers intended to excoriate and then challenge the federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and blacks, generally, in the South. However, the group acquiesced to presidential pressure and influence, and the event ultimately took on a far less strident tone.
As a result, some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington” and members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.
The march did, however, make specific demands: an end to racial segregation in public school; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed by congressional committee.
Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protestors in Washington’s history. King’s I Have a Dream speech electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory.
Throughout his career of service, King wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his long experience as a preacher. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in 1963, is a passionate statement of his crusade for justice. On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading non-violent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States.
Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967 – exactly one year before his death – King spoke out strongly against the US’s role in the war, insisting that the US was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. But he also argued that the country needed larger and broader moral changes:
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just”.
King was long hated by many white southern segregationists, but this speech turned the more mainstream media against him. TIME called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi “, and the Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people”.
The speech was a reflection of King’s evolving political advocacy in his later years. He began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation. Toward the end of his life, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism):
“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong. with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism”.
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D. C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
On April 3, 1968, King prophetically told a euphoric crowd:
“It really doesn’t matter what happens now. some began to. talk about the threats that were out – what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. 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. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.
King was assassinated the next evening, April 4, 1968, at 6:01pm, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, while preparing to lead a local march in support of the heavily black Memphis sanitation workers’ union which was on strike at the time. Friends inside the motel room heard the shot fired and ran to the balcony to find King shot in the jaw. He was pronounced dead several hours later. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 60 cities. Four days later, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the lost civil rights leader. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral that same day.