I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation, where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is just an excerpt from the speech that made him a living legend. This great man was a blessing for all African-Americans, whose freedom from enslavement and racism, he tried to achieve throughout his lifetime. He was a champion of the civil rights movement, where he put in all efforts to end racial discrimination against the blacks. It is for this reason that he got the Nobel Peace Prize, at a young age of 35. As a man with so many feathers in his cap, here is everything about the historical life of this legend.
The timeline of his life clearly explains how his life was dedicated only to ending the brutalities of racism and racial segregation, and how it brought about a huge transformation in the way the world perceived the African-Americans.
He was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was born as 'Michael King, Jr.', but after a trip to Germany, his father renamed him 'Martin Luther King, Jr.', in memory of the famous German Protestant leader. In 1948, he completed his degree in Bachelor of Arts, having specialized in the field of Sociology.
From a very young age, he was exposed to harshness of racism against African-Americans. It is said that at the tender age of 6, he was forbidden from playing with his friends because they were white and he was black. This rift was further deepened, when the little ones were sent to two different schools, meant for whites and blacks. While he experienced these events in the South to where he belonged, while spending time up North in Connecticut, he noted how the Negroes and the whites co-existed peacefully. He also remarked in a letter to his parents, that the two races went to the same church, and could even eat together. This further strengthened his contempt for racial segregation.
While spending time in the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, he learned all about Mahatma Gandhi's idea of non-violence, and finally earned a degree in Divinity in 1951. He further went to Boston University, to complete his dissertation on the subject, 'A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman'.
Important Events in his Lifetime
The fight against racism was marked by a number of events, that eventually led to the success he unfortunately could not see. Having said that, his accomplishments towards reforming the lives of the African-Americans made his whole effort worthwhile.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
He soon became a pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, after having married Coretta Scott in 1953, a singer he met while in Boston. It was at this time, that a new law was imposed on racial segregation in the city's public transport system. The underlying resentment of this law soon came to the fore, when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in a bus in Montgomery, and soon after, was arrested for violating the law.
As a consequence of this incident, the public transit system of Montgomery was boycotted by the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed by activists against racism led by Martin Luther King, Jr. This boycott lasted for over a year, and the situation worsened to the point where Martin Luther's house was bombed, and he himself, arrested. This was however, not without success, as by the end of the court ruling in December 1956, racial segregation in the buses of Montgomery was abolished.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
In 1957, an organization called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a means of leading the upcoming civil rights movement in the country. This organization resulted from the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, that gave him a national platform to express his opinion on racialism and to free the African-Americans from their unjust treatment. In this organization, he applied the concepts of Christianity, and the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, such as non-violence and non-compliance. He gave lectures all across the country, where he discussed all those issues that plagued African-Americans with leaders of the civil rights movement, as well as religious leaders.
In 1961, a non-violent movement was held in Albany, Georgia, to end segregation of all types in the city. This movement was led by the desegregation coalition formed by the SCLC. He was a part of this demonstration, and was finally arrested along with several other protesters. He refused to be released until effective measures were taken to change the policy of segregation. However, these changes did not last long and were revoked once he left the city. When he returned in the year 1962, he was sentenced to jail again, where he once again refused bail till changes were made. However, this time, his bail was paid for by the authorities themselves, and he was removed from jail. The Albany movement did not succeed, in spite of several demonstrations and activities conducted to bring about reform.
Another incident related to the working of this organization can be traced back to the year 1963, where he participated in a sit-in demonstration conducted by black college students in Atlanta. This was in protest to the segregation at a lunch counter in the Atlanta department store. He was then arrested along with 33 other students, but soon those charges were dropped. However, he was then arrested on the pretext of another minor violation, which created an outrage among people all over the country. He was finally released, but only after the intervention of John F. Kennedy; which many say was a move to gain victory in the upcoming elections. This entire incident was a part of the popular Birmingham Campaign. Towards the end of this campaign, he became the idol of the civil rights movement, and the effects of the racial segregation in the city became less harsh.
The March on Washington
On August 28, 1963, there was a peaceful gathering of more than 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial to demand equality of justice for all American citizens under the law of the country. Demands were also made to end racial segregation in public schools, prohibition of racial discrimination in employment, and an end to the brutality of the police towards civil rights activists. It was here that he gave his moving, electrifying, and prophetic speech 'I have a dream'. This speech, now popularly known as the Martin Luther King speech, is one that has been etched in history, never to be forgotten.
In the year 1965, he also suggested that all those blacks who had suffered as a result of slavery and general racial discrimination, should be compensated by the government of America. He said that simply by proving blacks and whites equal, the problem of racism could not be overcome. Economic compensation would make a great difference in bridging this gap.
The Civil Rights Act
All his efforts were not in vain, and in fact were honored when the Civil Rights Act was passed in the year 1964, that ended the segregation in public accommodations in publicly owned facilities and in employment. This event led to a bigger highlight of his life. He was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935, for his peaceful efforts in bringing about such drastic reforms for the African-Americans in such a short time period.
Opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr.
While the aforementioned facts about him speak of all the success he received in his endeavors, it is important to note that, slowly there were signs of opposition bubbling under the surface. The month of March, 1965 was the first time a serious resistance was evident toward his tactics. A march was organized from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, which King did not lead himself. This was in order to highlight the requirement for a federal voting rights law, to give freedom to the African-Americans to vote. This march was met with severe resistance, when state troopers used tear gas and nightsticks to stop the demonstration.
This day came to be known as 'bloody Sunday'. He once again attempted to carry out a demonstration two days after this incident, which he led himself. Again, they were met with barricades on their march from outside Selma. Here, instead of forcing their way through, King asked his followers to kneel in prayer and then retreated. This led to a lot of opposition from his own followers, who wished to execute some radical measures to bring about serious changes. They were already not very comfortable with King's non-violent ways. However, this entire event was not a failure, because the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
Another act of resistance was evident in Chicago in the year 1966, when he decided to take his movement up North. Here, he attempted to oppose racial segregation in housing. After months of opposition, reforms were finally made, and the rules for segregation in housing were altered. However, this did not bring about much of a change, as the Mayor of the city was deeply opposed to the whole idea.
Slowly, the unrest among his own followers became more prominent, and they began calling his efforts way too passive. They wished to apply more rigid and aggressive measures to bring about radical changes.
Stance Against the Vietnam War
In the face of rising opposition, he attempted to bring issues other than racism under his purview. He began to strongly oppose the Vietnam War, that was led by America, starting in the year 1965. In the year 1966, his stance against the Vietnam war was met with strong opposition within his own community, which caused him to relent. However, he revived his open opposition again in 1967, where he made a speech at a peace rally in New York City, clearly stating the futility of the death of African-Americans, for a country that gave them only hatred in return.
Poor People's Campaign
As a part of his drive to include other issues that plagued society, he carried out the Poor People's March to Washington in the year 1968, where the SCLC demanded substantial economic support to the poor communities in the country. However, he did not gain much support in this campaign from other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of people resigned from their duties in the campaign, as they believed its goals to be unachievable.
As part of the poor people's campaign, he went to Memphis, Tennessee on 29 March, 1968, in order to show support for the black sanitation workers. These workers were already on strike, demanding higher wages and suitable treatment from their employers. Among the several speeches he gave, the one he gave just before the day he died, clearly implied that he sensed the presence of death looming around him.
In Memphis, he was staying in the Lorraine Motel. On 4 April, 1968, when he was standing in the balcony of his room 306, exactly at 6:01 pm, the sound of a shot was heard. He had been killed by a sniper's bullet that had lodged in his shoulder. His assassination led to the outbreak of riots in over 100 cities of the country. The culprit, James Earl Ray, was then captured just two months after the death of King and then confessed to his crime on 10 March, 1969. He was sentenced to a 99 year term in prison. It is said that Ray was not a criminal, but just a petty thief, who had been made a scapegoat by those, who were opposed to the practices of Martin Luther King, Jr. and wished to see him dead.
There is more about this legend that has not been understood yet. The strength and maturity he portrayed at such a young age, the efforts he took to end racial discrimination in America, and his untimely death has had a universal impact. In his and in the honor of the radical yet non-violent movement he led to bring about change, the third Monday of the month of January every year is celebrated as Martin Luther King Day. Of course, as much love and affection existed for him during and after his time, there was equal opposition to the tactics he employed, and also some debate regarding his personal life. Many have accused him of adultery, and of supporting Communist tendencies.
No matter how much historians split each hair of all the known and unknown facts about him, and continue discussing controversial subjects that were part of his life; the fact that this man rewrote American history and altered the perception of African-Americans throughout the world, cannot be changed or undermined. It is only these genuine efforts that will always be remembered, and are now evident with the reality that a man of African-American origin, Barack Obama, is now leading the United States of America as its president.