Martin Luther King Jr is internationally known for the role that he played in the civil rights struggle in the USA. There is a definite parallel when his actions are compared to that of Ghandi in South Africa early in the previous century – his policy of non-violent protest (In 1959 he visited India with a view to understand Gandhi‘s principle of non-violent persuasion, called satyagraha). He rose to fame during a decade of great achievement – 1957 to 1968.
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta on 15 January 1929, one of three children of Martin Luther King Sr. King’s father was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and his mother was a former schoolteacher. He attended the local grammar and high schools and, on completion, enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944.
King had no intention of following in his dad’s footsteps but after having met with Dr. Benjamin Mays, changed his mind. He acquired the bachelor’s degree in 1948 and moved on to the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He won the Plafker Award as the most promising student of the graduating class as well as the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship. King gained his doctorate in 1955. He got married to Coretta Scott, a music student of Alabama. They were married in 1953 during the years leading to his doctorate.
On completion of his studies King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where he initiated his first move on the civil-rights movement. He got the black community to stage a 382-day boycott of the city’s bus services. The boycott lasted for more than a year, demonstrating a new spirit of protest among Southern black community. Eventually the United States Supreme Court declared bus segregation to be unconstitutional. King was the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was established following a meeting of a number of black civil-rights leaders in 1957. He became a national hero who protested as President of the SCLC and organised others to act against discrimination. He made a trip to India and returned to the United States in 1960 to become his father’s co-pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In 1960 King’s non-violent activities came under heavy fire at a mass protest in Birmingham for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. The police, rigorously highlighting the plight of blacks in the United States, roughly manhandled the marchers. He was arrested, but he was not silenced at all: he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1958 to counter the reaction of those opposing his views. It provided a considerate account of his experience, argued that individuals had the moral right and responsibility to disobey unjust laws, and thus further enhanced his national influence.
On 28 August 1963 King delivered an inspiring address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech expressed the hopes of the civil rights movement in a moving speech going down well in the American history: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Following this meeting Time magazine designated King as its Person of the Year for 1963.
A few months later he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and on his return from Stockholm he took up new challenges.
In Selma, Alabama, King led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March.
He followed that with a crusade to Chicago where he launched programmes to upgrade the situation in the slums and to provide housing.
By the mid-1960s King’s role as the unchallenged leader of the civil rights movement was questioned by many young black activists in the north. Some argued that KingÃ¢’s non-violent protest strategies and appeals to moral idealism were useless in the face of sustained violence by whites. Some of them even rejected the leadership of ministers. Their disillusionment was one of the reasons why he rallied behind a new cause i.e. the USA’s involvement in Vietnam.
King lost support among white Americans when he joined the growing number of anti-war activists in 1965. Following the Selma protests, he had less exciting successes in his struggle for black civil rights. Many white Americans who had supported him believed that the job was completed. In many ways, the nation’s appetite for civil rights progress had been filled.
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People saw King’s shift of emphasis as “a serious tactical mistake”. The Urban League warned that the “limited resources” of the civil-rights movement would be spread too thin. King established a headquarters in a Chicago apartment in 1966, using that as a base to organize protests against housing and employment discrimination in the city. Students, professors, intellectuals, clergymen and reformers rushed into the movement.
Throughout 1966 and 1967 King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism to economic issues. He entered into argument for the redistribution of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome the well-established black poverty.
King called for a definite family income, and he threatened with national boycotts. To ensure the attention of government, he started on a plan in 1967 for a massive march of the poor on Washington, D.C. – the Poor People’s Campaign. He felt that a demonstration of such greatness would ensure the attention of Congress, and that it would have to recognize and deal with the huge number of desperate and demoralized Americans.
King never had the opportunity to play his role to completion as he was assassinated in Memphis by a sniper on 4 April 1968. While standing on the outside balcony of the black-owned Lorraine Hotel with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, King was shot in the neck. His death caused a wave of violence in major cities across the country. His death prompted riots in more than a hundred United States cities in the days following his death.
King’s death came to symbolize black courage and achievement, high moral leadership, as well as the people of America’s ability of to address and overcome racial divisions.
King’s legacy lives on. His birthday in January is a national holiday (a day that falls on or near King’s birthday on the 15th) and is celebrated every year with educational programs, artistic displays, and concerts throughout the United States.