Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Jun 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Activism, Social Sciences
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martinlutherking1929-1968  Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most important and significant African Americans of all time.  But his greatness of stature is best measured by his impact on all Americans, and indeed the entire global community in support of humanitarianism, universal dignity for all people, and nonviolent courageous action for positive social change. He is, and will remain, a role model for the world’s most marginalized peoples, as well as for its most powerful leaders.

Early Life and Education

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 to a family immersed in the local Black Baptist church. His maternal grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., followed Williams as Ebenezer’s pastor. King would ultimately join his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer, completing this powerful line of succession and deep cultural and religious immersion.

Following distinguished primary and secondary school studies, King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the remarkable age of 15, continuing at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.  After receiving numerous awards and scholarships in addition to a Bachelor of Divinity degree, he proceeded to doctoral studies at Boston University and Harvard University, earning a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from BU in 1955. He married Coretta Scott in 1953. King held at least 20 honorary degrees at the time of his death.  He was elected to membership in a number of important professional societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Church and Civil Rights Career

As early as 1948, King had entered the Ministry and was ordained at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he immediately became assistant pastor. After earning his doctorate, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama and served as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to 1959.

His arrival could not have been more timely in terms of the emerging civil rights movement. In 1955, a courageous Black woman named Rosa Parks refused to sit in the rear of a public bus, violating Montgomery’s segregation laws and affirming her own dignity.  This spark ignited a movement.  Black residents of the city organized a bus boycott that lasted for over a year. King was elected president of a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, and both he and the boycott achieved national prominence. In one of the great early victories of the movement, the United States Supreme Court decided in 1956 that Alabama’s segregation laws were unconstitutional, and Montgomery’s buses were forcibly desegregated.

In 1959, King resigned his Ministry in Montgomery to move to Atlanta, where he began to direct the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He also joined his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer (a role in which he continued to serve until his death). The SCLC was an effort on the part of King and other southern Black clergy to expand upon the success in Alabama. Concurrently,  Black college student activists were organizing themselves to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to promote positive social change and the advancement of civil rights. Conflicts arose between the two organizations, and would continue.

In one of the most dramatic and significant episodes of the civil rights story, King and the SCLC led mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, at that time a notoriously racist city with an autocratic and oppressive police force. Images of vicious police dogs attacking nonviolent Black demonstrators, while fire hoses pummeled them with high-pressure jets of water, were seared in the national conscience. In response, President John F. Kennedy introduced broad civil rights legislation to the U.S. Congress, resulting in the milestone passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Other demonstrations followed nationwide, climaxing with King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. before 250,000 “March on Washington” protestors. A brilliant orator and inspirational speaker, ever the pastor even in a secular realm, King’s most famous speech captured the essence of the moment and the movement, and swept millions up in its call for a better, more just society. In addition to his words, King’s courageous actions constantly served to educate and inspire:  he was arrested 30 times in connection with his civil rights and direct social action activities. His charismatic leadership was recognized in 1963 when he was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year,” and in 1964 when he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps inevitably, conflict grew with a maturing and increasingly northern and urban Black struggle, and the emergence of militant, Black Power and Black Nationalist movements. King held steadfastly to his ideals of nonviolence. But urban racial violence erupted in the late 1960s, leading to efforts by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to discredit King’s leadership. King’s outspoken criticism of the U.S. role in Viet Nam also put stress on his relationships with the Johnson administration.

The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967 would prove to be King’s last major organizational effort, this one focused on economic issues affecting civil rights. In 1968, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers, where he gave his final speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” There, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was shot and killed, an event that shocked a country, and led the entire world to grieve the loss of this remarkable martyr to the cause of civil rights.

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