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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important voice of the American civil rights movement, which worked for equal rights for all. He was famous for using nonviolent resistance to overcome injustice, and he never got tired of trying to end segregation laws (laws that prevented blacks from entering certain places, such as restaurants, hotels, and public schools). He also did all he could to make people realize that "all men are created equal."

 

Dr. King’s concept of “somebodiness,” which symbolized the celebration of human worth and the conquest of subjugation, gave black and poor people hope and a sense of dignity. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, and his strategies for rational and non-destructive social change, galvanized the conscience of this nation and reordered its priorities. His wisdom, his words, his actions, his commitment, and his dream for a new way of life are intertwined with the American experience.

 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family's long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished Black institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had been graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955 In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.

In 1954, Martin Luther King accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Black leader of the first rank.

In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience and inspiring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a manifesto of the Black revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Blacks as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, "l Have a Dream", he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.

At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.

CREDIT: Rev. Martin Luther King congratulated by Crown Prince Harald, (left) and King Olav after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, as Mrs. King looks on United Press International photograph, 1964 Dec 10. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the "Poor People's Campaign" to address issues of economic justice. King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" — appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness." His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of racism, poverty, militarism and materialism, and that "reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

On February 12, thirteen hundred African-American sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike. Though there had been a long history of grievances, the strike was begun as a response to a January 31 incident in which 22 black sanitation workers were sent home without pay during bad weather while all the white workers remained on the job. When the City of Memphis refused to negotiate with the 1,300 striking workers, King and other civil rights leaders were asked to visit Memphis in support. Most of Dr. King's close advisors thought he should not go to Memphis, they thought it would interfere with the "Poor People's Campaign", Dr. King overruled them.

On Monday, March 18, King traveled to Memphis, where he spoke to over 15,000 who had gathered at Mason Temple. Ten days later, King arrived in Memphis to lead a march in support of the striking workers. Unfortunately, as King led the crowd, a few of the protestors got rowdy and smashed the windows of a storefront. The violence spread and soon countless others had taken up sticks and were breaking windows and looting stores.

Police moved in to disperse the crowd. Some of the marchers threw stones at the police. The police responded with tear gas and nightsticks. At least one of the marchers was shot and killed.

King was extremely distressed at the violence that had erupted in his own march and became determined not to let violence prevail. In the following day's Dr. King's demeanor and mood was markedly different. He was depressed and easily agitated. His close friends and advisors say that Dr. King seemed to act and think that the end of his life was near. A second march was planned to show that a protest in Memphis could be peaceful and to insure that a planned march in Washington D.C. could take place later in the year. The first date of the protest was cancelled do to bad weather it was then rescheduled to April 8.

 

On April 3, King arrived in Memphis a little later than planned because there had been a bomb threat for his flight before takeoff. That evening, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to a relatively small crowd that had braved the bad weather to hear King speak. King's thoughts were obviously on his mortality, for he discussed the plane threat as well as the time he had been stabbed. He concluded the speech with- 

"Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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."

 

On the evening of April 4, 1968 at 6:01 p.m. , while standing on the balcony in front of his room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.

Martin Luther King Standing on the balcony moments before being killed

With him are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson and Rev. Ralph Abernathy

The Balcony of The Lorraine Hotel seconds after Martin Luther King was killed

On Monday, January 20, 1986, in cities and towns across the country people celebrated the first official Martin Luther King Day, the only federal holiday commemorating an African-American. 

I Have A Dream 

by Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

On August 23, 1963, a crowd of more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. and marched to the Capitol Building to support the passing of laws that guaranteed every American equal civil rights. Martin Luther King was at the front of the "March on Washington." On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial* that day, Dr. King delivered a speech that was later entitled "I Have a Dream." The March was one of the largest gatherings of black and white people that the nation's capital had ever seen... and no violence occurred.

 

Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. 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. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Quotes from Martin Luther King 

·         Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," 16 April 1963

·         We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
-- Speech in St. Louis, Missouri, March 22, 1964

·         The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige and even his life for the welfare of others.
-- Strength in Love (1963)

·         We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
-- "I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963

·         Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
-- Strength in Love (1963)

·         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 . . . So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
-- "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, April 3, 1968 (the day before his assassination)

·         If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live.
-- Speech in Detroit, Michigan on June 23, 1963

·         The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
-- Strength in Love (1963), Ch. 7

·         Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-- "I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963

·         I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.
-- Quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 13, 1962

·         A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.
-- Strength to Love (1963)

·         We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
-- Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964

·         Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         We were here before the mighty words of the Declaration of Independence were etched across the pages of history. Our forebears labored without wages. They made cotton 'king'. And yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to thrive and develop. If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. . . . Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho' we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny.
-- "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963

·         Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.
-- "Where do we go from here?" speech, August 16, 1967

·         When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."
-- "I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963

Credit: Nobel Organization, U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. Department of State