It was the 1963 March on Washington, attended by 250,000 people, 75 percent of them black, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (Ruffin, 2001). The speech was aired on national television, reaching millions of Americans, including the President.
The speech effectively raised civil consciousness by providing a clear path and goals for the Civil Rights Movement. Three decades after he was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. remains to be the human rights icon of today whose influence has become a fixed part in the lives of those people he helped and touched (Pastan, 2004).
Born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia he was the second of three children of Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King (Oates, 1994). Belonging to a middle-class family, King, Jr. and his siblings enjoyed relatively better lives than average black children.
At the very young age, he was exposed to ideas and issues of racial equality as his father was actively involved in the local chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who led a successful campaign to equalize the salaries of white and black teachers in Atlanta. Although he and his siblings had white playmates, they were not allowed to go to the same school with them.
He attended Atlanta Public Schools, David T. Howard Elementary and then Booker T. Washington High School. When he was in high school, he joined an oratory contest and won second place. His happiness was short lived for he had a long bus ride to get home where passengers were segregated according to the color of their skin.
The blacks had to stand and make room for the white people. At fifteen, he entered Atlanta’s Morehouse College, then Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania and Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D in systematic theology. While in college at Cozer, King, Jr. became exposed to Mahatma Gandhi and was inspired by his advocacy of non-violent activism. He even visited the Gandhi family in India in 1959 to deepen his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to the advocacy of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Sunnemark, 2004).
After completing his education, he rejected most offers instead chose to become pastor of Montgomery, AL’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He was named president of the new Montgomery Improvement Association, which set his public career into motion. When he lead the local African-American community’s bus boycott, King, Jr. became a household name and threats started coming to him and his family. He and his groups demanded three things: (1) seating arrangements according to first come-first serve basis; (2) drivers equal treatments of white and black passengers; and (3) hire black drivers to predominantly black routes.
Bus companies suffered losses as their customers are mainly black (Haskins, 1992). His house was bombed and he faced charges of conspiracy against the bus company. The bus boycott lasted a year, characterized by violence and different forms of intimidation but King, Jr. did not fail to emphasize the Christian way to handle the attacks. He advised his group to “turn the other cheek”. In December 21, 1956, King, Jr. together with other boycott leaders, rode the first desegregated bus.
The next few years were relatively quiet for King, Jr. but he remained to be active, getting involved with other civil rights movements. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate the protests which followed the success of the bus boycott (Garrow, 1968).
The SCLC became involved with African-American students who voiced out their denunciation of segregated public facilities such as whites-only lunch counters. However, some students did not approve of King, Jr.’s participation in their cause (Kirk, 2007). They claimed that he was just all talk without taking real actions. He received all the credits from the hard work of the group. He kept the money, enjoyed the fame that truly belonged to others who sacrificed. This impression was furthered when he was able to spent lesser jail time compared to others who participated in sit-ins in an Atlanta department store and was arrested.
They argued that King, Jr. used his mainstream appeal to leave the jail early through presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. John F. Kennedy needed King, Jr. to reach to the black people while the black people were in doubt whether King, Jr. was still the right leader to represent them. Versions of these criticisms surrounded him all through his life.
Hallmark of his success was in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize (Bull, 2000). He accepted the award in behalf of the Civil Rights Movements. Early the next year, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was back in a jail cell. Such is the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Though intrigues, threats and violence hunted him all his life, his contributions to free America, blacks and whites, were incomparable.
Bull, Angela (2000). DK Readers: Free At Last, The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.
Garrow, David (1968). Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Haskins, James (1992). The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company.
Kirk, John (2007). Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Civil Rights Movement: Controversies and Debates. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Oates, Stephen (1994). Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Pastan, Amy (2004). Martin Luther King, Jr: Biography. NY: DK Publishing, Inc.
Ruffin, Frances (2001). Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. NY: Grosset & Dunlap.
Sunnemark, Fredrik (2004). Ring Out Freedom! The Voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement. IN: Indiana University Press.
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