Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929 and was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was only 39 years old. He was without a doubt the most prominent leader in Black history. He is best known for being an iconic figure in the advancement of civil rights in the United States and around the world, using nonviolent methods following the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

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REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.

There were many reasons for the nonviolent approach to the Black struggle. Being a devoted minister in the Christian faith, violence was not a way to solve problems, the study of Gandi’s success in fighting for India independence from England, but the main reason was that Blacks did not have the firepower, manpower or the violent will to engage in a violent struggle with a group of people who saw no value in a Black life, so for Blacks to pick up guns in the South would have been suicide, thus playing right in the hands of the White Jim Crow supporters of the South.

A Baptist minister following in his father’s footsteps, who pastored one of the largest churches in Atlanta, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president. King’s efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he expanded American values to include the vision of a color blind society, and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.

In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.

Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. A precocious student, he skipped both the 9th and the 12th grade and entered Morehouse College at age 15. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Ala. They had four children Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice. King became pastor of the Dexter Ave­nue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. when he was 25 years old in 1954.

King then began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955.

In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The group was 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 led the SCLC until his death.

King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against the 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 convinced the majority of Americans that the Civil Rights Movement was the 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 the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Birmingham campaign was a strategic effort by the SCLC to promote civil rights for Colored people. Many of its tactics of “Project C” were developed by Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, Executive Director of SCLC from 1960–1964. Based on actions in Birmingham, its goal were to end the city’s segregated civil and discriminatory economic policies. The campaign lasted for more than two months in the spring of 1963. To provoke the police into filling the city’s jails to overflowing, King and Black citizens of Birmingham employed nonviolent tactics to flout laws they considered unfair. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said, “The purpose of…direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Protests in Birmingham began with a boycott to pressure businesses to offer sales jobs and other employment to people of all races, as well as to end segregated facilities in the stores. When business leaders resisted the boycott, King and the SCLC began what they termed Project C, a series of sit-ins and marches intended to provoke arrest. After the campaign ran low on adult volunteers, SCLC’s strategist, James Bevel, initiated the action and recruited the children for what became known as the “Children’s Crusade.” During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs to control protesters, including children. Not all of the demonstrators were peaceful, despite the avowed intentions of the SCLC. King and the SCLC were criticized for putting children in harm’s way. By the end of the campaign, King’s reputation improved immensely, Connor lost his job, the “Jim Crow” signs in Birmingham came down, and public places became more open to Blacks.

King and SCLC were also driving forces behind the protest in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964. The movement engaged in nightly marches in the city met by Whites who violently assaulted them.

King and the SCLC joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Ala., in 1964, where SNCC had been working on voter registration for several months. A sweeping injunction issued by a local judge barred any gathering of three or more people under sponsorship of SNCC, SCLC, or DCVL, or with the involvement of 41 named civil rights leaders. This injunction temporarily halted civil rights activity until King defied it.

King, representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called “Big Six” civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963. The other leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were: Roy Wilkins from the NAACP; Whitney Young, National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James L. Farmer Jr. of the Congress of Racial Equality. The primary logistical and strategic organizer was King’s colleague Bayard Rustin. For King, this role was another which courted controversy, since he was one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of President John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. Kennedy initially opposed the march outright, because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation.

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