King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968)

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, quite simply, the most popular and effective leader of the African American struggle for civil rights. His philosophy of non-violent direct-action galvanized thousands of Americans, both black and white, to press for the full measure of human and political rights for African-Americans. Although he was not personally responsible for mobilizing protest, he was certainly one of the greatest organizers of people the world has ever seen. Today, a national holiday is named in his honor and numerous highways, streets, schools, playgrounds, and public buildings display his name.

For a man who would capture the attention of both his country and the world, King's life seemed like a fairy tale. Born into Atlanta's black upper class in the midst of the depression, King felt very few effects of the economic crisis. As the son of a popular Baptist pastor, King was afforded the opportunity to have a childhood free from overt racial discrimination. Upon graduating from the all-black elite Morehouse College at the age of 19, he then undertook training in theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he received a bachelor's degree. While at Crozer, King absorbed the ideas of Christian socialism that would play a tremendous role in his life's work. King built upon these ideas of social justice as he pursued his doctorate in theology at Boston University.

Upon receiving his doctorate at the age of 26, Martin Luther King, Jr. was appointed pastor of the conservative Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he gained notoriety by spearheading the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott under the auspices of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The leaders of the MIA chose King as leader for several reasons, but primarily since he was new to the area and the white power structure had not yet made his acquaintance. After the success of the bus boycott, King then decided to institutionalize his popularity by forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). And until his death SCLC would be King's vehicle for mobilizing African Americans to protest discriminatory treatment. Largely made up of ministers, SCLC's motto would be "To Redeem the Soul of America."

After forming the SCLC King, with the help of the other civil rights organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP, initiated several campaigns throughout the South in their quest for voting rights and integration. Throughout the civil rights drive King remained firmly committed to his philosophy of nonviolence. At times, both his critics and supporters failed to understand how blacks could remain nonviolent in a country that spoke the language of violence. But King was persistent in his Ghandian philosophy that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

King's popularity reached new heights at the 1963 March on Washington with his "I Have a Dream" speech. Although it was a phrase that he had used many times before, this time it struck a rich chord with both blacks and whites alike. On the heels of this dramatic speech, King then received the Nobel Peace Prize for his unwavering commitment to nonviolent social change. For King, who was the first African American to receive the award, it illustrated that the world was behind the black struggle for civil rights. Although white Southerners were defiant in their opposition to the twin goals of voting rights and integration, millions of people across the globe were in support.

With his popularity skyrocketing, King was continually in both the print and broadcast media. He immediately became an icon. He capitalized on his press coverage by cleverly articulating the goals and aims of the Civil Rights Movement to viewers and readers far away. He also published three popular books, Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Why We Can't Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community, to further express his ideas on the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the 1960s King gave an untold number of speeches and sermons as he often toured the country to speak on behalf of the cause he so ardently espoused. In nearly every city he spoke before a packed house. To some activists, a local campaign did not seem legitimate unless King gave it his blessing.

In 1965, King and other civil rights leaders saw the fruits of their labor when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. In the words of one historian, "it was the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights movement."

Although he was successful in the South, King's popularity began to wane when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. In May of 1966, against the wishes of even some of his close confidants, King began to denounce the conflict. Many thought that he should just stick to the issue of civil rights and leave foreign policy to others. However, feeling that it was an unjust war, King decided to speak out. After voicing his opinion on the war, nearly every major U.S. newspaper came out against him. As his popularity began to decrease, King launched the Poor People's Campaign that would transcend the wide chasm of race, culture, and religion. Tragically, he was fatally wounded by an assassin's bullet on April 4, 1968 while aiding Memphis sanitation workers in their fight for better working conditions.

Few activists can ever hope to be as popular or successful as Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, mere mention of his name evokes greatness, commitment, and dedication. His name is respected throughout the world, even by his enemies. However, his life's work on behalf of the oppressed will long be the standard by which others are measured.

—Leonard N. Moore

Further Reading:

Carson, Clayborne. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, Warner Books, 1998.

Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Harding, Vincent. Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. New York, Orbis Books, 1997.

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King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968)

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