Martin Luther King Jr.

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Martin Luther King Jr.

Excerpt from "Where Do We Go from Here?," a speech delivered at the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967.
Reprinted from A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2001.

"We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.…"

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was by far the best known of all the 1960s civil rights leaders. Hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists at rallies across the country and millions watching his speeches on the three television networks found inspiration in his words. King's opinions either gave people encouragement to forge ahead or stirred them up to fight against the coming change.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael Luther King, on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. Early in his childhood his name was changed to Martin, Jr., after his father, a Baptist minister. King had a keen intellect. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 and went on to earn doctoral degrees in theology and philosophy by the end of the 1950s. Ordained a minister in 1948, King accepted his first position at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, that same year.

King rose to national prominence during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. King and others formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize the boycott in support of Rosa Parks (1913–), the black woman who had refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus, as required by Alabama law, when the driver directed her to. As president of the MIA, King advocated nonviolent protest as the most effective method to achieve racial justice. Blacks, who made up the largest percentage of bus riders in Montgomery, refused to ride city buses until the bus system was desegregated. Despite harassment and arrests, the peaceful protests continued for more than a year. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation laws illegal in 1956, King and his followers were energized to do more. They formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the goal of increasing black voter registration and eliminating segregation.

King's masterful gift for speechmaking propelled the civil rights movement forward, inspiring protestors at rallies and marches throughout the South. Time magazine recognized King in 1957, saying that he had "risen from nowhere to become one of the nation's remarkable leaders of men." By 1964 King had become an international symbol of peace.

That year Time honored him as "Man of the Year," and he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The nonviolent protests King led, such as marches, served the civil rights movement well at first. Reports of attacks by police and others on peaceful protestors repulsed many. Nonviolent protestors gave their cause a dignified air. As the decade wore on, however, violent reaction against protestors became less visible, occurring behind closed doors or in the dead of night. Without the horrible pictures of violent opponents attacking calm protestors, the shock value of nonviolent protestors wore off, and public support became less enthusiastic.

By the mid-1960s civil rights activists were divided in their opinions about violence. Radical groups formed and some, such as SNCC, shifted their policies toward more violent methods of activism. King, however, remained steadfast in his belief in nonviolent protest. His example was Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), who led massive nonviolent protests in India to end British colonial rule there. In the following speech, given in 1967, King assessed the victories of nonviolent versus violent protest. In King's mind, nonviolent protest remained the only answer to the plight of the black man.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt of "Where Do We Go from Here?":

  • Martin Luther King Jr. became a pastor in 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and emerged as a political leader during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
  • King was a highly educated man; he earned a Ph. D. in 1955 from Boston University.
  • Though King suffered threats, intimidation, arrests, a bombing of his house, and even a stab in the chest in 1958, he never wavered in his commitment to nonviolence.
  • King was known to a vast majority of Americans by the 1960s. All three television networks broadcast King's "I Have a Dream" speech that he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963; he appeared on numerous popular magazine covers; and he was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
  • When King gave the following speech, violent civil rights protestors were advocating for uprisings against white society and even the formation of a black "nation."
  • In his speech King evaluated the decade of nonviolent protest to persuade his followers that their nonviolent efforts had been more successful in winning civil rights.

Excerpt of "Where Do We Go from Here?"

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What happened next…

At the time of King's speech, the militant civil rights groups, such as the Black Panthers, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Nation of Islam, and SNCC (renamed the Student National Coordinating Committee), advocated for urgent militant efforts to gain rights for blacks. These groups rejected, and many directly threatened, white society. American cities, including Los Angeles and Detroit, exploded in rioting in which businesses and homes were burned and looted.

Knowing that the right to vote and participate in white society was not enough, King had outlined a plan for economic equality that would help blacks compete on an equal footing with whites. But King would not live to reach these goals. When he was killed by a gunshot on April 4, 1968, his followers scrambled to keep his dream alive.

Reverend Ralph Abernathy tried to lead King's proposed Poor People's Campaign in May of 1968, erecting a tent city in Washington, D.C., with several hundred demonstrators in protest of economic inequalities. Abernathy did not exert King's moral hold on the demonstrators, however, and the tent city deteriorated into violence among the protestors. The failure of the Poor People's Campaign signaled how strong King's leadership had been. Washington police evicted the protestors in June, marking an end to the demonstration.

No leader could match King's leadership, and by the end of the decade civil rights groups had splintered into several small, less effective organizations. But King's legacy lived on. The legal changes made during the 1960s laid the foundation for dramatic improvement in lives of blacks and other minorities in America. The oppressive regime that King had been born into was gone.

Did you know…

  • Although the civil rights movement lost momentum with King's death, it had already transformed American society. America was a much fairer society by the end of the 1960s, but not the "color-blind" society King envisioned.
  • During the 1970s, affirmative action policies, which gave racial minorities an advantage in job and university applications, helped many minorities and some women get education and jobs with better salaries.
  • The affirmative action programs that gave racial minorities an advantage in university enrollment and employment hiring procedures fostered racial resentment in white society. Instead of seeing affirmative action programs as remedies for eliminating the past practices that banned blacks from universities and jobs, some whites came to see these programs as "reverse" racism.

Consider the following…

  • Martin Luther King Jr. is credited with possessing a moral leadership that inspired civil rights activists to subject themselves to dangerous, life-threatening situations. What qualities would a leader have to display for you become such an activist?
  • In his speech, King described the improvements nonvio-lent protest had made in society by 1967. Do you think these improvements prove that nonviolent protest really worked? Explain your reasoning.
  • Without King, the civil rights protestors had a difficult time assembling peacefully in large numbers. Why do you think this happened?

For More Information


Bennett, Lerone, Jr. What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Chicago, IL: Johnson, 1964.

Bruun, Erik, and Jay Crosby, eds. Our Nation's Archive: The History of the United States in Documents. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1999.

Carson, Clayborne, and Kris Shepard, eds. A Call to Conscience. New York: Warner Books, 2001.

Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Farber, David, and Beth Bailey, with others. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Haskins, James. The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1992.

January, Brendan. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Minister and Civil Rights Activist. Chicago, IL: Ferguson Publishing, 2000.

King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969, revised, 1993.

King, Rev. Martin Luther, Jr. The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Coretta Scott King. New York: Newmarket Press, 1983.

Pettit, Jayne. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man with a Dream. New York: Franklin Watts, 2001.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger, eds. The Times Were a Changin'. New York: Random House, 1998.

Wukovits, John F. Martin Luther King, Jr. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Web sites

National Civil Rights (accessed on August 4, 2004).

The King (accessed on August 4, 2004).

"Martin Luther King, Jr.: Biography." Nobel (accessed on August 4, 2004).

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Martin Luther King Jr.

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