Today we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. born on this day in 1929 as Michael King, Jr. in Atlanta, GA. In my quest to write this blog, I went on a journey through Dr. King’s life unlike I ever did in school and gained a more profound sense of pride in the man and his work. He gave his own life to the cause of equality and we are all better for his sacrifices.
Dr. King was born into a solid middle class family with a deep history in southern black ministry. Dr. King’s father and maternal grandfather were both Baptist preachers and both of Dr. King’s parents were college educated, despite their humble southern beginnings. King grew up on Atlanta’s Auburn Street, commonly known as the “black Wall Street” as it was home to some the United States’ most successful black businesses and churches.
In 1934, Michael King, Sr. took a trip to Germany and learned about the German Protestant reformation leader Martin Luther, this led him to change his name and that of Michael Jr.’s name to Martin Luther. And thus the man we know commonly as MLK was created.
Dr. King’s upbringing was full of love and security, but was not without the stark reality of racism so common in our country at the time. At six years old, young Michael, now called Martin, was told by one of his white friends that they could no longer play together because they would now be attending their segregated schools. This helped to form young Martin’s understand of the world. This coupled with his father’s fight against prejudice because he believe that racism and segregation was offense to God. Thus he passionately discouraged the concept of class superiority to his own children.
But Martin’s young life was not without pain. In 1941, his beloved grandmother died of a heart attack. The twelve year old Martin was devastated by her death, especially because he was not home at the time having defied his parents and attended a local parade. His overwhelming grief and guilt compelled him to jump from the second story window of his family’s home, an assumed attempt to end his own life.
Throughout much of Martin’s young life he had questioned religion and was deeply uncomfortable with excessively emotional displays of worship. This led him to decide to focus his studies on the law and medicine, much to the disappointment of his father. However, Martin took a bible class his junior year and was mentored by Morehouse President, Dr. Benjamin Mays. This bible class and Dr. Mays reignited Martin’s interest in religion from the standpoint of equality. Dr. May was an outspoken advocate for equality as well as an influential theologian. Dr. Mays taught Martin to view Christianity as a force for positive social change. All of this, coupled with the teachings of his father helped, Martin to see a future in the life and service of the ministry.
After graduating Morehouse with a sociology degree in 1948, Martin attended the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA. He graduated in 1951 as both valedictorian and class president, no small feat for a black man in an almost exclusively white school. But this speaks to his charisma and ability to cross social norms.
King’s next educational endeavor took him to graduate school at Boston University. It was during this time that King met and fell in love with Coretta Scott, a young singer from Alabama who was enrolled at the New England Conservancy of Music. King and Scott were married in Alabama in 1953 after King graduated from BU. The King’s settled in Alabama and started their family while King finish his doctoral dissertation. During this time, the now Dr. King king became the 20th pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, serving from 1954 to 1960; and was the beginning of his civil rights work.
On March 2, 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin refused to to give up her seat to a white man while on a Montgomery city bus. Young Claudette was arrested for violating the city law and brought to jail. The local NAACP initially leapt at the opportunity to have Ms. Colvin to be a test case to challenge the law. BUT the 15 year old was unwed and pregnant and the civil rights leaders were worried this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin less sympathetic to the white community.
A day short of nine months later on December 1st, Rosa Parks, a secretary at the local NAACP, took a seat in the first row of “colored seats” on the Cleveland Avenue bus. As the bus filled to capacity and white men forced to stand, the bus driver commanded Parks and other African Americans to relinquish their seats. Three of them reluctantly agreed, but Parks famously held firm and refused to move. Parks was arrested and book for violated the same Montgomery city code as Colvin had nine months earlier.
The night Ms. Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, the head of the Montgomery NAACP, met with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to plan the Montgomery bus boycott. King was chosen as the leader due to his youth, charisma, family connections and strong professional standing in the community. But he was also new to the community and had few, if any, enemies and a very strong credibility with the black community. And thus was thrust into the national spotlight.
“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an 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.” MLK’s speech that kicked off the 382 day Montgomery, AL bus boycott.
The black community launched their assault against the city of Montgomery ordinance stating it’s unconstitutionality based on the Supreme Court’s “separate is never equal” in Brown v Board of Education. The city finally lifted the the public transportation law after losing several court battles and suffering devastating financial losses due to the boycott.
The rest is well documented history. The creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that sparked the empowerment of the black community by getting them involved in our voting process with the 20 mass meeting in various southern cities to organize massive voter registration efforts of black Americans. Dr. King’s unwavering support and encouragement of the student movement of sit-ins started in February 1960 at lunch counters throughout the South. By August of that year, lunch counter segregation was ended in 27 southern cities.
There were numerous nonviolent marches that were met with anger and hate; water canons and dogs that Dr. King either helped to organize or would march arm in arm with the community members and leaders. He gave impassioned speeches, encouraged all to keep up the fight for equality; to stand strong but always in a nonviolent manner, “to accept blows without retaliation”. He was jailed 29 times. His arrests were for “civil disobedience” and even had a stint in the Montgomery, Alabama jail for driving 30MPH in a 25MPH zone! His arrest in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama for participating in a march spurred the now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In this letter, King addressed a local newspaper’s printing of letter “A Call for Unity” from clergymen. The letter agreed that discrimination existed but did not believe that physical demonstrations in the streets were the answer and were too extreme, that the fight should occur solely in the courts. This response was an oppression of the free men and women who felt that taking to the streets was the only way to be seen and heard. King’s letter started in the margins of the newspaper, spread to scraps of paper he was snuck by a guard and eventually put to paper on a pad his lawyers were allowed to give him. The letter details why Dr. King felt it was his duty not just as a black man, but as a man of God to press for equality and force the issues of civil rights and oppression to the forefront of the nation and that he would travel anywhere that injustice reared its ugly head. “I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown.”
I would implore you to read this letter. It is an emotional read about why a call to action to demand what had been promised over and over and never given was so necessary. You can feel the frustration and pain felt by Americans fighting to be recognized as a whole person equal under the laws. To understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
In August of 1963, Dr. King would deliver one of his most famous speeches in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument before an estimated crowd of 200,000-300,000 people after the March on Washington. This speech detailed Dr. King’s hope and vision for the future. He remained steadfast in his belief that peace and equality were the right of every man, woman and child regardless of race, creed or religion. The march and speech are thought to have been the watershed moment for our civil rights fight and a strong reason behind the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The years that followed this speech Dr. King rallies his supporters and continued his nonviolent actions to demand civil justice and positive change for all. But he was often criticized by the young and upcoming black militants leaders as being too weak and ineffective. So he sought to broaden his base of support and formed a multi-race coalition aimed at fighting against the economic and unemployment problems of ALL disadvantaged people. By 1968 the years of marches, demonstrations, arrests, confrontations and death threats were taking a toll on Dr. King. He was frustrated by the overwhelmingly slow progress of civil rights.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, TN to help support a local sanitation workers’ strike. He delivered his chillingly prophetic “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” speech.
“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 to that promised land. And so I am 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!”
Dr. King’s life was ended by an assassin’s bullet the very next evening; ending the life of a man who believed we could and would be able to come together as a single nation and drive out hate and segregation. Dr. King’s work is far from over and as we pay homage to his work, passion and vision, it is up to us to continue to fight for equality for all.