Martin Luther King

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Telling the story

Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15 January 1929. He was assassinated in a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968. For a concise, readable account of his life story in between those two dates, click the links on the left.

 Martin Luther King with Lyndon B. Johnson

This brief life of Martin Luther King is told in five sections:

  • My father was a preacher
  • Jesus and Gandhi
  • Winning the bus boycott
  • In Birmingham Jail, Alabama
  • Free at last!

My father was a preacher

“My father was a preacher,” said Martin Luther King, explaining his choice of career. “My grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.”

 Segregation in early 20th Century America

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Great Depression, King knew poverty and racial injustice at first hand, but his family shielded him from some of its worst effects. They never went hungry, because his father was good with money, and they suffered few racial attacks because he was a strong, confident and brave man who knew how to stand up for himself without hitting back.

Above all, it was a loving and happy family. “I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever-present.”

Because of the racial segregation in Atlanta, King as a boy could not go swimming or to the park or cinema. He learnt from his parents not to accept this evil, but also that it was his duty as a follower of Christ to love the white people, and not to hate.

At the age of 14, he won a schools speechmaking competition in Dublin, Georgia – not surprisingly, considering he became one of the 20th century’s greatest speakers. His speech was on “The negro and the constitution,” arguing that the rights enshrined in the American constitution were not extended to black people in reality. “We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flout the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the golden rule.”

On the bus journey home, he and his teacher were shouted at and cursed by the driver for not being quick enough to vacate their seats for white travellers. They had to stand for 90 miles. “That night will never leave my memory,” King later said. “It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

Jesus and Gandhi

King received his BA degree at the age of 19 and then trained as a minister for three years, going on to take a PhD at Boston University. In his desire to challenge the condition of America, he studied ethical thinkers from Marx to Plato, but the one who had the greatest impact on him was Gandhi.

 Rosa Parks

Gandhi’s non-violent protest had gained India’s independence from Britain, inspired by Jesus’s sermon on the mount – which King felt Gandhi understood better than Christians.

“Prior to reading Gandhi, I had concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.”

Determined to put this “love ethic” of Jesus into practice to change America, he rejected offers of academic posts and returned south. He married Coretta Scott in 1953, and in 1954 became the minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he worked with such campaign groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Then on 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a local black woman, got on a bus. By law, blacks were bound to vacate the middle section of the bus when the whites-only part was full, but for once she refused and was arrested.

King and other black leaders met in his church and decided it was time to act. They called a boycott of the buses, electing King as their leader.

It was a phenomenal success. For almost a year, hardly a single black person in Montgomery rode a bus. Cheap taxi services were organised, which the city authorities closed down. Car pools started up instead. The bus company was devastated, but the city fought all the way.

Throughout, King insisted that they reject violence in favour of Christian love.

“It was the Sermon on the Mount,” he said, “that originally inspired the negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love… I came to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the negro in his struggle for freedom.”

Winning the bus boycott

During the Montgomery bus boycott, King was bombarded with death threats. Late one night, after a threatening phone call, he was overcome by fear and weariness. He prayed aloud, telling God he could not go on.

 Protest in 1963

He felt an inner voice saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even to the end of the world.”

“I tell you I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone… My fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three night later, while he was at a meeting, his house was bombed. His wife and daughter were not hurt.

King and other leaders of the movement were indicted over the boycott. He was sentenced to 386 days hard labour, but while this was going to appeal, in November 1956, the US Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional.

Said Martin: “We have lived under the agony and darkness of Good Friday with the conviction that one day the heightening glow of Easter would emerge on the horizon. We have seen truth crucified and goodness buried, but we have kept going with the conviction that truth crushed to earth will rise again. Now our faith seems to be vindicated.”

In 1957, King turned his attention to the vote. In theory, black people in the south had the vote, but in practice they were largely prevented from actually voting.

A bill was being debated to address this, as well as issues of housing and education. To call on Washington to pass the law, King helped organise a Prayer Pilgrimage to the city. 37,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, including political leaders, and King’s speech confirmed him as the voice of black America. The bill was passed, becoming the American civil rights legislation of the century.

In 1958, King was stabbed at a book signing by a woman with a letter opener. He survived, but the tip of the knife touched his aorta, so his whole chest had to be opened up to extract it. If he had sneezed, it would have killed him.

In Birmingham Jail, Alabama

The 1960s dawned with a wave of student sit-ins, following by King’s policy of passive resistance. Black students throughout the south occupied coffee shops and lunch counters which still practised segregation, and got a savage response from the police. Many were beaten and arrested.

 1963 speech

One of the leaders expressed their policy like this: “Don’t curse back if cursed or abused… Remember love and non-violence… Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”

King supported the movement and joined a sit-in in Atlanta. He was arrested, and although the charge was dropped, he was imprisoned for an earlier traffic offence. During the couple of days he was in prison, his wife Coretta got a phone call from Senator John Kennedy, offering his sympathy and support. King had met Kennedy before to discuss racial politics, and although King never officially endorsed him, the support he gained from black voters in general is said to have been decisive in winning him the presidency.

Over the following years, the situation in the south grew increasingly fraught. Demonstrations were harshly put down. King went to jail repeatedly. In 1963, in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama, the bastion of segregation, he was called upon by white ministers to stop the campaign, and wrote the famous Letter From Birmingham Jail defending the necessity of it.

On release, he organised a march of 6,000 children and young people in Birmingham. The police chief turned dogs and water canons on them. The confrontation was repeated for several days until the city conceded and agreed to stop the worst aspects of segregation.

Free at last!

In August 1963, King led another march to Washington. Kennedy was trying to get a law through Congress against racial inequality, and 250,000 people from across the US came in support of it. This is where King delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech. The Civil Rights Act was passed and followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act.

King was acclaimed the Time magazine Man of the Year in 1963, and then in 1964 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his later years, his non-violent ideals were disputed by other black leaders such as Malcolm X, and roundly condemned by other such as Stokely Carmichael. King, however, stayed utterly committed to the way of peace for the rest of his life.

In the later sixties, he broadened his focus from segregation in the south to the deeper-rooted problem of poverty that oppressed black people – and also many white people – throughout the United States. He scheduled a Poor People’s March in Washington for the summer of 1968.

In April 1968 he flew to Memphis, Tennessee, to help sanitation workers organise a strike. He addressed them on 3 April, recalling what glorious days he would have missed if he had died in the stabbing ten years earlier. These were his closing words:

“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 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.”

The following day, as he stood on his hotel balcony, he was shot and killed.

 The balcony on which King was assassinated

King’s birthday has been a US national holiday since 1986. At the time of his death, there was a long way to go towards real equality for black people in America, but not nearly such a long way as before he started. And it was his commitment to the non-violent ways of Jesus, learned at the feet of Gandhi, that prevented the struggle for freedom becoming a war.

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About this module

Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister from the southern United States, led a struggle for racial equality which has changed the way westerners see issues of race ever since. His insistence on non-violence and his life and teaching have also inspired work for justice and peace worldwide.

Categories: Lives, Biographical, Interviews, Sound & vision,


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