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Martin Luther King
1929-1968

 


He led a mass struggle for racial equality that doomed segregation and changed America forever
By JACK E. WHITE for Time Magazine
 

 

It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighbourhoods.

Three decades after King was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., he is still regarded mainly as the black leader of a movement for black equality. That assessment, while accurate, is far too restrictive. For all King did to free blacks from the yoke of segregation, whites may owe him the greatest debt, for liberating them from the burden of America's centuries-old hypocrisy about race. It is only because of King and the movement that he led that the U.S. can claim to be the leader of the "free world" without inviting smirks of disdain and disbelief. Had he and the blacks and whites who marched beside him failed, vast regions of the U.S. would have remained morally indistinguishable from South Africa under apartheid, with terrible consequences for America's standing among nations. How could America have convincingly inveighed against the Iron Curtain while an equally oppressive Cotton Curtain remained draped across the South?

Even after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in 1954, what the world now calls human-rights offenses were both law and custom in much of America. Before King and his movement, a tired and thoroughly respectable Negro seamstress like Rosa Parks could be thrown into jail and fined simply because she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus so a white man could sit down. A six-year-old black girl like Ruby Bridges could be hectored and spit on by a white New Orleans mob simply because she wanted to go to the same school as white children. A 14-year-old black boy like Emmett Till could be hunted down and murdered by a Mississippi gang simply because he had supposedly made suggestive remarks to a white woman. Even highly educated blacks were routinely denied the right to vote or serve on juries. They could not eat at lunch counters, register in motels or use whites-only rest rooms; they could not buy or rent a home wherever they chose. In some rural enclaves in the South, they were even compelled to get off the sidewalk and stand in the street if a Caucasian walked by.

The movement that King led swept all that away. Its victory was so complete that even though those outrages took place within the living memory of the baby boomers, they seem like ancient history. And though this revolution was the product of two centuries of agitation by thousands upon thousands of courageous men and women, King was its culmination. It is impossible to think of the movement unfolding as it did without him at its helm. He was, as the cliché has it, the right man at the right time.

To begin with, King was a preacher who spoke in biblical cadences ideally suited to leading a stride toward freedom that found its inspiration in the Old Testament story of the Israelites and the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. Being a minister not only put King in touch with the spirit of the black masses but also gave him a base within the black church, then and now the strongest and most independent of black institutions.

Moreover, King was a man of extraordinary physical courage whose belief in non-violence never swerved. From the time he assumed leadership of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 to his murder 13 years later, he faced hundreds of death threats. His home in Montgomery was bombed, with his wife and young children inside. He was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which bugged his telephone and hotel rooms, circulated salacious gossip about him and even tried to force him into committing suicide after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. As King told the story, the defining moment of his life came during the early days of the bus boycott. A threatening telephone call at midnight alarmed him: "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we're going to blow your brains out and blow up your house." Shaken, King went to the kitchen to pray. "I could hear an inner voice saying to me, 'Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.'"

In recent years, however, King's most quoted line—"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"—has been put to uses he would never have endorsed. It has become the slogan for opponents of affirmative action like California's Ward Connerly, who insist, incredibly, that had King lived he would have been marching alongside them. Connerly even chose King's birthday last year to announce the creation of his nationwide crusade against "racial preferences."

Such would-be kidnappers of King's legacy have chosen a highly selective interpretation of his message. They have filtered out his radicalism and sense of urgency. That most famous speech was studded with demands. "We have come to our nation's capital to cash a check," King admonished. "When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," King said. "Instead of honouring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' " These were not the words of a cardboard saint advocating a Hallmark card-style version of brotherhood. They were the stinging phrases of a prophet, a man demanding justice not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now.

 


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The African American minister and Nobel Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), originated the nonviolence strategy within the activist civil rights movement. He was one of the most important black leaders of his era.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga. He attended the Atlanta public schools. Following graduation from Morehouse College in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary, having been ordained the previous year into the ministry of the National Baptist Church. He graduated from Crozer in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955.

In Boston, King met Coretta Scott, whom he married on June 18, 1953. Four children were born to them. King became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954. He became active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Alabama Council on Human Relations.


Non-violence: The Bus Boycott

In December 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for violating a segregated seating ordinance on a public bus in Montgomery, black citizens were outraged. King, fellow minister Ralph Abernathy, and Alabama's state chairman of the NAACP called a public meeting. African Americans were urged to boycott the segregated city buses, and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed. The boycott lasted over a year, until the bus company capitulated. Segregated seating was discontinued, and some African Americans were employed as bus drivers. When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the bus segregation laws of Montgomery were unconstitutional, the boycott ended in triumph for black dignity.

Overnight, Martin Luther King had become a national hero and an acknowledged leader in the civil rights struggle. The victory had not been easy. Elected president of the MIA, King's life was in constant danger. His home was bombed, and he and other MIA leaders were threatened, harassed, arrested, and jailed.


Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In January 1957 approximately 60 black ministers assembled in Atlanta to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to continue the civil rights fight. King was elected president. A few months later he met Vice President Richard Nixon at the celebration of Ghanaian independence in Accra. A year later King and three other black civil rights leaders were received by President Dwight Eisenhower. However, neither meeting resulted in any concrete relief for African Americans who, meanwhile, were growing increasingly restive under continued racial discrimination.

In February 1958 the SCLC sponsored 21 mass meetings in key southern cities as part of a "Crusade for Citizenship." The goal was to double the number of black voters in the South. King was travelling constantly now, speaking for "justice" throughout the country. A year later Dr. and Mrs. King visited India at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King had long been interested in Mahatma Gandhi's practice of non-violence. Yet when they returned to the United States, the civil rights struggle had greatly intensified, and violent resistance by whites to the non-violent efforts of black demonstrators filled the newspapers with accounts of bloody confrontations.

Increasing demands were being made upon King as an advocate of non-violent change. He moved his family to Atlanta in 1960 and became associate pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ralph Abernathy soon followed, and the two men worked in tandem for the remainder of King's career.


"Sit-in" Movement

In February 1960 the "sit-in" movement was begun in Greensboro, N.C., by African American students protesting segregation at lunch counters in city stores. The movement quickly spread throughout North Carolina to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The black students were frequently joined by white students and other sympathizers. On April 15 the SCLC called a conference of sit-in leaders to coordinate the movement. King urged the young people to continue using nonviolent means. Out of this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) emerged. For a time the SNCC worked closely with the SCLC, though ultimately the two groups went their separate ways.

By August a report issued by the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta stated that the sit-ins had succeeded in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities. In October delegates at the SCLC meeting resolved to focus nonviolent campaigns against all segregated public transportation, waiting rooms, and schools. They would increase emphasis on voter registration and would use economic boycotts to gain fair employment and other benefits for African Americans. An important department store in Atlanta, a widely known symbol of segregation, was the first objective. When King and 75 students entered the store and requested lunch-counter service, he and 36 others were arrested. Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce, however, and charges were dropped, but King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic offense conviction. John F. Kennedy, currently campaigning for the presidency, made a dramatic telephone call to Mrs. King. Political wheels were set in motion, and King was released.


Freedom Riders

In a subsequent move, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SCLC, and SNCC joined in a coalition. A Freedom Ride Coordinating Committee was formed with King as chairman. The idea was to "put the sit-ins on the road" by having pairs of black and white volunteers board interstate buses travelling through the South to test compliance with a new Federal law forbidding segregated accommodations in bus stations. A great deal of violence resulted, as resisting whites overturned and burned buses, assaulted the Freedom Riders, and attacked newsmen. Many of the arrested riders went to prison rather than pay fines. However, public furor moved the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce non-segregation laws in buses engaged in interstate transportation and in their servicing terminals.

In December 1961 King and the SCLC were invited by black leaders in Albany, Ga., to lead their civil rights struggle. After 2,000 frustrated African Americans clashed with police, King called for a "day of penitence." King himself was jailed, tried, and given a suspended sentence. In an ambitious voter education program in Albany and the surrounding area, SNCC and SCLC members were harassed by whites. Churches were bombed, and local black citizens were threatened and sometimes attacked. King's nonviolent crusade responded with prayer vigils. It was not until the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act was passed that public facilities in Albany were desegregated.

In May 1962 King was asked to assist in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., and the SCLC made plans to hold its annual convention there. The Birmingham campaign began with a series of workshops on non-violence. In early 1963 King made a speaking tour, recruiting volunteers and obtaining money for bail bonds for those arrested in the struggle. On April 3 a manifesto was issued by the black community, and the campaign began in earnest with picketings and sit-ins. On the Friday before Easter, Dr. King was jailed; on Easter Sunday, African Americans appeared at white churches asking to join their fellow Christians in worship. When Dr. King's brother was arrested on his way to the Birmingham jail to pray for King, a near riot resulted.

On May 2 some 6,000 school children marched to demonstrate against school segregation; 959 children were arrested. The next day, as volunteers gathered in a church, police barred the exits, and fire hoses and police dogs were turned on the teen-age demonstrators.

The SCLC's campaign continually met harassment from the Birmingham police. Finally, a period of truce was established, and negotiations began with the city power structure. Though an agreement was reached, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of King's brother and the motel where SCLC members were headquartered. Enraged black citizens rioted; Alabama state troopers moved in and set up undeclared martial law. King and SCLC personnel continued to urge nonviolence, and tensions seemed to ease for a time. But more violence erupted when white racists refused to comply with Federal school integration laws. The worst came when a bomb thrown into a black church killed four little girls.


Civil Rights Rally in Washington

The year 1963 was eventful in the struggle for civil rights. In June, King and 125,000 persons marched in a "Freedom Walk" in Detroit. On August 27, over 250,000 black and white citizens assembled in Washington, D.C., for a mass civil rights rally, where King delivered his famous "Let Freedom Ring" address. That same year he was featured as Time magazine's "Man of the Year."

The next year King and his followers moved into St. Augustine, Fla., one of America's most thoroughly segregated cities. After weeks of nonviolent demonstrations and violent counterattacks by whites, a biracial committee was set up to move St. Augustine toward desegregation. A few weeks later the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

In September 1964 King and Abernathy went to West Berlin at Mayor Willy Brandt's invitation, where King received an honorary doctorate from the Evangelical Theological College. The two civil rights leaders then went to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul VI. Back in the United States, King endorsed Lyndon Johnson's presidential candidacy. That December, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965 the SCLC concentrated its efforts in Alabama. The prime target was Selma, where only a handful of black citizens had been permitted to vote. King urged President Johnson to expedite the Voting Rights Bill, and he announced a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the black people's determination to vote. But Governor George Wallace refused to permit the march, and the 500 persons who gathered to march were beaten by state troopers and "possemen." The march continued anyway, and Selma's black citizens were joined by hundreds of blacks and whites from other states, including many notable churchmen. On March 21 over 10,000 persons followed King from Selma toward Montgomery. Only 300 were allowed to make the 4-day march, but they were joined by another 25,000 in Montgomery for the march to the capital to present a petition to Governor Wallace.


New Issues: Vietnam War

In 1965 King made a "people-to-people" tour of northern cities. But the growing militancy of black people in Watts and Harlem, and even in Mississippi and Alabama, caused Dr. King to reassess the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he had fathered. Although he reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolence, he understood the intense frustration experienced by blacks when their own nonviolent tactics left them open to dangerous violence from the opposition. He was troubled, too, about the American involvement in the war in Vietnam and found himself increasingly pushed toward leadership in antiwar groups.

In 1967 King began speaking directly against the Vietnam War, although many civil rights advocates criticized this. While serving a 4-day sentence in Birmingham stemming from the 1963 demonstrations, King and his brother, Abernathy, and Wyatt Tee Walker began planning a "Poor People's March" to bring together the interests of the poor of all races.


The Assassination

In January 1968 Dr. King and other antiwar leaders called for a Washington rally on February 5/6. He also announced that the Poor People's March would converge in Washington on April 22. Following the February rally, King toured key cities to see firsthand the plight of the poor. Meanwhile, in Memphis, Tenn., black sanitation workers were striking to protest unequal pay and poor working conditions. The protest soon became citywide, with grievances ranging from police brutality to intolerable school conditions. In March, King went to lead the Memphis demonstrations. The march ended in a riot when some frustrated young blacks began breaking windows, looting, and burning stores. Police retaliation was swift and bloody. In Memphis on April 3, King addressed a rally; speaking of threats on his life, he urged followers to continue the nonviolent struggle no matter what happened to him.

The next evening, as King stood on an outside balcony at the Lorraine Hotel, he was struck by a rifle bullet. He was pronounced dead at 7:00 P.M. in a Memphis hospital.

King was a prolific writer. Among his most important works are Stride toward Freedom (1958), Strength to Love (1963), Why We Can't Wait (1964), Where Do We Go from Here (1967), and The Trumpet of Conscience (1968). Collections of his writings include A Martin Luther King Treasury (1964) and I Have a Dream (1968).

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008