Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the most revered leader of our time, was born January 15, 1929 and murdered on April 4, 1968. Dr. King’s most notable accomplishments were the Montgomery Bus Boycott, being the founder and first President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the famed March on Washington, and being the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
His main legacy was to secure progress in civil rights for the American Negro and poor people in the United States, and for this reason he has become a human rights icon recognized as a martyr. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, a National Holiday, and will be honored with a monument on the Washington Mall in DC.
He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. who was born “Michael King.” Few people know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was originally named “Michael King, Jr.” until the family traveled to Europe in 1934 and visited Germany. His father soon changed both of their names to Martin Luther in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind.
King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama; they had four children. At the age of twenty-five he became Pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where his trajectory to greatness was launched in 1954. He skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grade and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. King then began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
King was originally skeptical of many of Christianity’s claims. Most striking perhaps was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.” However, throughout his career of service, he wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his experience as a preacher, which he understood to be his purpose. For example, in his “letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, is a passionate statement of his crusade for justice. It was confirmed when he became the youngest recipient to receive the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for leading non-violent resistance to racial prejudice in the United States.
We have been taught to believe that Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat that day was an anomaly. Many Blacks refused, at one time or another, to give up their seats in the white only section usually resulting in being run out of town. There was a committee silently waiting for an instance where they could take it through the legal system to put an end to this unholy system. For example, in March 1955 a fifteen-year-old school girl, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in compliance with the Jim Crow Laws. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African American community that looked into the case; the committee decided to wait for a better case to pursue.
On December 1, 1955, the case that they were waiting for appeared. Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. The Montgomery Bus Boycott planned by E. D. Nixon and led by King emerged. The boycott lasted for 385 days crippling the city economically. The situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed and he was arrested during this campaign. The case ultimately ended with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses and throughout the south.
In 1957, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King led the SCLC until his death. Over his career Dr. King narrowly escaped death as his life was in constant danger, but he remained faithful to a non-violent philosophy modeled by Gandhi’s non-violent techniques. Dr. King believed that organized non-violent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights.
It is my opinion that this was the single most powerful tool in the arsenal of the civil rights movement. This explosive media coverage, both journalistic and television footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights marchers produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion. This was in large part what convinced the majority of Americans that the civil rights movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960’s. King organized and led marches for the right to vote, desegregation, labor rights and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. King was sought out for assistance all over the nation to improve the state of the deprived Negro in campaigns like the Albany Movement, Birmingham, Selma, Augustine, and the famed March on Washington. After the campaign ran low on adult volunteers, SCLC’s strategist, James Bevel, initiated the recruitment of children for what became known as the “Children’s Crusade.” During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department led by Bull Connor, used high pressure water jets and police dogs to control protesters including the little children. King and the SCLC were criticized by many for putting children in harm’s way but by the end of the campaign it was a resounding success. Connor lost his job, the “Jim Crow” signs in Birmingham came down, and public places became open to blacks.
History will most remember Dr. King for his famous “I have a dream speech” during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that took place on August 28, 1963. Dr. King, representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of this massive event. The other leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were Roy Williams from the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, John Lewis of SNCC, and James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality with King’s colleague Bayard Rustin the primary logistical and strategic organizer.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks and a very public opportunity to place their grievances squarely before the seat of power in the nation’s capital. King’s leadership role was another which caused controversy because he was one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of President Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. It is a fact that 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 stood their ground concerning the march. Organizers firmly intended to challenge the federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil rights of the Negro.
However, the group acquiesced to presidential pressure and the event ultimately took on a far less strident tone. As a result, some civil rights activists felt it presented a sanitized representation of racial harmony. Malcolm X called it the “Farce on Washington” and members of the Nation of Islam were not permitted to attend the march. In spite of that, the march did make specific demands that were important to the movement. The demands were an end to racial segregation in public schools, meaningful civil rights legislation, a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, protection of civil rights workers from police brutality, a two dollar minimum wage for all workers, and self government for Washington, DC, which was controlled by the Dixiecrats.
Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than a quarter million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington’s history. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a view that black Americans, as well as other disadvantaged Americans, should be compensated for historical wrongs. In an interview conducted for Playboy in 1965, he said that granting black Americans only equality could not realistically close the economic gap between them and whites. He stated, “It should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.”
What disturbs me about the movement was the “fact” that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who was supposed to be a friend of the Negro, warned King to discontinue his suspect associations. It was Kennedy who felt compelled to issue the written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. J. Edgar Hoover used the bureau over the next five years in attempts to force King out of the preeminent leadership position. This led Hoover to imply that King was a Communist and aggressively dog him for the rest of his life. He was concerned that allegations of Communists in the SCLC would derail the Administration’s civil rights initiatives.
For his part, King adamantly denied having any connections to Communism, stating in the 1965 Playboy interview that “there are as many Communists in this freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida,” while claiming that Hoover was “following the path of appeasement of political powers in the South.” He went on to say that his concern for communist infiltration of the civil rights movement was meant to “aid and abet the salacious claims of southern racists and the extreme right-wing elements.” Hoover did not believe his pledge of innocence and replied by saying that King was “the most notorious liar in the country.”
After King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, the FBI described King as “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” In December 1963, FBI officials were gathered for a special conference and alleged that King was “knowingly, willingly and regularly cooperating with and taking guidance from communists” whose long-term strategy was to create a “Negro-labor” coalition detrimental to American security.
The attempt to prove that King was a Communist was related to the feeling of many segregationists that blacks in the South were happy with their lot but had been stirred up by “communists” and “outside agitators.” The civil rights movement arose from activism within the black community dating back to before World War I. In response to the FBI’s comments regarding communists directing the civil rights movement, King said that “the Negro revolution is a genuine revolution, born from the same womb that produces all massive social upheavals, the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations.”
Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 appearance at the Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before his death, King delivered a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam.” In the speech, he spoke strongly against the United States’ role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King also was opposed to the war on the grounds that the war took money and resources that could have been spent on social welfare services like the War on Poverty.
Many white southern segregationists vilified King and this speech soured his relationship with many members of the mainstream media. Life Magazine 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.” King stated that North Vietnam “did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands.” King also criticized the United States’ resistance to North Vietnam’s land reforms. He accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, “mostly children.”
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized his last campaign, the “Poor People’s Campaign,” to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, DC, demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States. King traveled the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would march on Washington to engage in non-violent civil disobedience at the Capitol until Congress created a bill of rights for poor Americans. However, the campaign was not unanimously supported by other leaders of the civil rights movement. Rustin resigned from the march stating that the goals of the campaign were too broad, the demands unrealizable, and thought these campaigns would accelerate the backlash and repression on the poor and the black.
Unfortunately, before the march was realized Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of black sanitary public works employees who had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day. On April 3, King addressed a rally and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address at Mason Temple, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. King’s flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane.
In the close of the last speech of his career, in reference to the bomb threat, King said the following: “And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. 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 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.”
The next evening at 6:01 p.m., April 4, 1968, a shot rang out as King stood on the motel’s second floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, then traveled down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. After emergency chest surgery, King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7:05 p.m. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King’s autopsy revealed that though only thirty-nine years old, he had the heart of a sixty-year-old man, perhaps a result of the stress of thirteen years in the civil rights movement. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was on his way to Indianapolis for a campaign rally when he was informed of King’s death. He gave a short speech to the gathering of supporters informing them of the tragedy and asking them to continue King’s idea of non-violence.
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended King’s funeral on behalf of Lyndon B. Johnson, as there were fears that Johnson’s presence might incite protests and perhaps violence. At his widow’s request, King’s last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at the funeral. It was a recording of his “Drum Major” sermon, given on February 4, 1968. In that sermon, King made a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to “feed the hungry,” “clothe the naked,” “be right on the Vietnam war question,” and “love and serve humanity.” His good friend Mahalia Jackson sang his favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” at the funeral. The city of Memphis quickly settled the strike on terms favorable to the sanitation workers.
Two months after King’s death, escaped convict James Earl Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd on his way to white ruled Rhodesia. Ray was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King’s murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969, though he recanted this confession three days later. On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid a trial conviction and thus the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term.
Ray fired Foreman as his attorney, from then on derisively calling him “Percy Fourflusher.” He claimed a man he met in Montreal, Quebec with the alias “Raoul” was involved and that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting, unsuccessfully, to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. On June 10, 1977, shortly after Ray had testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he did not shoot King, he and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petos, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13 and returned to prison.
Ray’s lawyers, as do I, maintained Ray was a scapegoat similar to the alleged John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. As seen by conspiracy theorists, Ray was a thief and burglar, but he had no record of committing violent crimes with a weapon. Those suspecting a conspiracy in the assassination point out the two separate ballistics tests conducted on the Remington Gamemaster recovered by police had neither conclusively proved that Ray had been the killer nor that it had even been the murder weapon. Moreover, witnesses surrounding King at the moment of his death say the shot came from another location, from behind thick shrubbery near the rooming house, which had been inexplicably cut away in the days following the assassination, and not from the rooming house window.
In 1997, King’s son Dexter Scott King met with Ray, and publicly supported Ray’s efforts to obtain a new trial. Two years later, Corretta Scott King, along with the rest of King’s family, won a wrongful death claim against Loyd Jowers and “other unknown co-conspirators.” Jowers claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King’s assassination. The jury of six whites and six blacks found Jowers guilty and that government agencies were party to the assassination. William F. Pepper represented the King family in the trial.
In 2000, the United States Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers’ claims but did not find evidence to support allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommended no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented. The New York Times reported a church minister, Rev. Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson, not James Earl Ray, assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. He stated, “It wasn’t a racist thing; he thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way.”
In my opinion, the argument that Ray acted alone is simply fantasy. How can we be expected to believe a two bit crook could develop a plan to kill King and travel the world broke? In 2004, Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the time of his death said, “The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. And within our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks. …I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for, and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.”
On the international scene, King’s legacy included influences on the Black Consciousness Movement and Civil Rights Movement in South Africa. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, followed her husband’s footsteps and was active in matters of social justice and civil rights until her death in 2006. The same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, she established the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to preserving his legacy and the work of championing non-violent conflict resolution and tolerance worldwide. We are blessed that Dr. King was allowed to walk among us and change the world.
In His Own Words