2018-01-10 / Features

Remembering Dr. King Jr.: An Advocate Of Civil Rights

Both hailed as a civil rights leader who achieved his ends by nonviolent means and vilified as a traitor to the cause of black equality, Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister from Atlanta Georgia, was born on Jan 15, 1929 at the home of his parents. In 1986, 18 years after he was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee Apr. 4, 1968, his birthday was declared a national holiday.

King, acclaimed by many as the guiding light for 15 of the most crucial years in America's civil rights struggle, was born Michael L. King. His father changed his and his son's names to Martin Luther King to honor the leader of the Protestant Reformation in 1935. King attended local schools and won admission to Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, having skipped ninth and 12th grades and earning exceptionally high scores on his college entrance examinations. In 1948 he graduated from Morehouse and entered Crozer Theological Seminary. He was ordained to the Baptist ministry at 19 years of age.

He became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1953 and in 1957 was chosen president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began to broaden his active role in the civil rights struggle, which he entered in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white man. King led the year-long boycott of Montgomery buses which resulted in a Supreme Court decision outlawing discrimination in public transportation.

He based his approach to the contest on the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, especially that writer's Civil Disobedience and the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi and the Christian religion. His oratorical style for which he became famous with his "I have a dream" (1963) and "I've been to the mountaintop" (1968) speeches drew directly on the Bible and was complemented by a serene confidence emanating from his non-violent philosophy.

He met Coretta Scott while doing graduate work at Boston University and married her in 1953, two years before he was awarded his Ph.D. The Kings had four children. King became co-pastor of his father's Ebeneezer Baptist Church in 1959. During the ensuing years he gave much of his time to organizing protest marches and demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama and St. Augustine, Florida. He was arrested and jailed by southern officials several times and was stoned and physically attacked. His house was bombed and he was also placed under surveillance by Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, who sought to discredit him as a leftist and womanizer.

King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at age 35 the youngest person ever to be so honored. He used his new-found powers to attack discrimination in northern states as well as the south. Observing the impact of the Vietnam War on the country's resources and energies, he broadened his criticisms of American society to incorporate anti-war sentiments.

Challenges to King's leadership began to emerge in the mid-1960s. Malcolm X’s message of self-defense and black nationalism expressed the anger of black Americans in northern urban environments more strongly than did King's moderate views, and King encountered strong criticism from Stokley Carmichael, a proponent of the “black power" movement. He also encountered increasing resistance from national political leaders, as his criticisms of the Vietnam War alienated him from the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. King remained committed to nonviolence and in 1967 announced the inception of his Poor People's campaign, focusing on jobs and freedom for poor people of all races. He demanded a $12 billion economic bill of rights guaranteeing employment to able-bodied individuals, incomes to those unable to work and an end to housing discrimination.

King went to Memphis in support of striking workers of that city in March 1968; a march he led at that time was the first one with which he was connected to turn violent. He was assassinated at sunset Apr. 4th. Riots and disturbances in 130 American cities followed and 20,000 people were arrested. His funeral was an international event, with the president proclaiming a day of mourning and flags flown at half-staff. Within a week of King's assassination, the Open Housing Act was passed by Congress.

King's reputed assassin was James Earl Ray, born in Alton, Illinois in 1928. He had escaped from a prison sentence for armed robbery in 1967 and while at liberty was said to have shot King as the black leader stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but while few people doubted it was he who had fired the shot, doubts continued to arise as to whether he had acted alone. The King family, led by King's widow, backed his claim of innocence, but any chance of reopening the investigation into King's assassination ended when Ray died in 1998.

The Atlanta area where King is entombed is today known as Freedom Plaza and is surrounded by the Freedom Hall complex of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The 23-acre area was listed as a National Landmark in 1977 and became the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site by action of the federal Department of the Interior in 1980.

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