On January 15, 1929, the world welcomed a male Negro child who would become the man known to the world as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the most revered leader of our time. 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.
Dr. King’s 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 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. Here is a little-known fact about Dr. King: he 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.
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.
Dr. King’s legacy lives in the souls of all mankind, and his efforts did more for African American life in America than any other man in Negro history in spite of being the most hated man in the world at the time in which he lived. It is hard to fathom today what the world would be like if he never lived. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…
In His Own Words