Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was the most famous leader of the American civil rights movement, a political activist, a Baptist minister, and was one of America’s greatest orators. In 1964, King became the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (for his work as a peacemaker, promoting nonviolence and equal treatment for different races). On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1977, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. In 1986, Martin Luther King Day was established as a United States holiday. Martin Luther King is one of only three persons to receive this distinction (including Abraham Lincoln and George Washington), and of these persons the only one not a U.S. president, indicating his extraordinary position in American history. In 2004, King was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Dr. King often called for personal responsibility in fostering world peace. King’s most influential and well-known public address is the “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second child of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King entered Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, as he skipped his ninth and twelfth high school grades without formally graduating. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree in 1951. In September of that year, King began doctoral studies in Systematic Theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) on June 5, 1955.
civil rights activism
In 1953, at the age of twenty-four, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to comply with the Jim Crow laws that required her to give up her seat to a white man. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, urged and planned by E. D. Nixon (head of the Montgomery NAACP chapter and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and led by King, soon followed. (In March of the same year, a 15 year old school girl, Claudette Colvin, suffered the same fate but King refused to become involved, instead preferring to focus on leading his church.) The boycott lasted for 382 days, the situation becoming so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation on all public transport.
King was instrumental in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, a group created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct non-violent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King continued to dominate the organization. King was an adherent of the philosophies of nonviolent civil disobedience used successfully in India by Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, and he applied this philosophy to the protests organized by the SCLC.
The FBI began wiretapping King in 1961, fearing that Communists were trying to infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement, but when no such evidence emerged, the bureau used the incidental details caught on tape over six years in attempts to force King out of the preeminent leadership position.
King correctly recognized that organized, nonviolent protest against system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that made the Civil Rights Movement the single most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.
King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into United States law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King and the SCLC applied the principles of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out in often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities. Sometimes these confrontations turned violent. King and the SCLC were instrumental in the unsuccessful Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia, in 1961 and 1962, where divisions within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated efforts; in the Birmingham protests in the summer of 1963; and in the protest in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964. King and the SCLC joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, in December 1964, where SNCC had been working on voter registration for a number of months.
opposition to Vietnam war
Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War. In an April 4, 1967 appearance at the New York City Riverside Church – exactly one year before his death – King delivered Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. In the speech he spoke strongly against the U.S.’s role in the war, insisting that the U.S. was in Vietnam “to occupy it as an American colony” and calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” But he also argued that the country needed larger and broader moral changes:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.”
King was long hated by many white southern segregationists, but this speech turned the more mainstream media against him. Time called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi”, and The Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
With regards to Vietnam, King often claimed that North Vietnam “did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands.” (Quoted in Michael Lind, Vietnam: The Necessary War, 1999 p. 182) King also praised North Vietnam’s land reform. (Quoted in Lind, 1999) He accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, “mostly children.” (Guenter Lewey, America in Vietnam, 1978 pp. 444–5)
The speech was a reflection of King’s evolving political advocacy in his later years, sparked in part by his affiliation with and training at the progressive Highlander Research and Education Center. King began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation. Toward the end of his life, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism:
You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry…. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism…. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
(Frogmore, S.C. November 14, 1966. Speech in front of his staff.)
King had read Marx while at Morehouse, but while he rejected “traditional capitalism,” he also rejected Communism due to its “materialistic interpretation of history” that denied religion, its “ethical relativism,” and its “political totalitarianism.”
King also stated in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.
poor peoples’ campaign
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. However, according to the article “Coalition Building and Mobilization Against Poverty”, King and SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign was not supported by the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Bayard Rustin. Their opposition incorporated arguments that the goals of Poor People Campaign was too broad, the demands unrealizable, and thought these campaigns would accelerate the backlash and repression on the poor and the black.
The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington—engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be—until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”
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.”
In April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ, Inc. – World Headquarters) King prophetically told a euphoric crowd during his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech:
It really doesn’t matter what happens now…. some began to… talk about the threats that were out—what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers…. 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. My eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord!
In late March, 1968, Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black sanitary public works employees, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment: for example, African American workers, paid $1.70 per hour, were not paid when sent home because of inclement weather (unlike white workers).
On April 3, Dr. King returned to Memphis and addressed a rally, delivering his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address.
King was assassinated at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Friends inside the motel room heard the shots and ran to the balcony to find King shot in the throat. He was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital at 7:05 p.m. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 60 cities. Five days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the lost civil rights leader. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral that same day. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended on behalf of Lyndon B. Johnson, who was meeting with several advisors and cabinet officers on the Vietnam War in Camp David (there were fears Johnson might be hit with protests and abuses over the war if he attended). At his widow’s request, King eulogized himself: at the funeral his last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a recording of his famous ‘Drum Major’ sermon, given on February 4, 1968, was played. In that sermon he makes a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the [Vietnam] war question”, and “love and serve humanity”. Per Dr. King’s request, his good friend Mahalia Jackson sang his favorite hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, at the funeral.
The city quickly settled the strike, on favorable terms, after the assassination.
- Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story (1958)
- The Measure of a Man (1959)
- Strength to Love (1963)
- Why We Can’t Wait (1964)
- Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (1967)
- The Trumpet of Conscience (1968)
- A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986)
Full streaming video of the “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speeches are available on www.MLKOnline.net
- Amazon’s Martin Luther King, Jr. page