Martin Luther King


Martin Luther King
(1929-1968)



Eloquent black Baptist minister who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. His leadership was fundamental to that movement's success in ending the legal segregation of blacks in the South and other portions of the United States. King rose to national prominence through the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, promoting nonviolent tactics such as the massive March on Washington (1963) to achieve civil rights. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. The U.S. Congress voted to observe a national holiday in his honour, beginning in 1986, on the third Monday in January.

Early years.
King came from a family steeped in the tradition of the Southern black ministry: both his father and maternal grandfather were Baptist preachers. At the age of 15 he entered Morehouse College, Atlanta, under a special program for gifted students, receiving his B.A. in 1948. As an undergraduate his earlier interests in medicine and law were eclipsed by a decision in his senior year to enter the ministry, as his father had urged. Spending the next three years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. (bachelor of divinity, 1951), King first became acquainted with Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence as well as with the thought of contemporary Protestant theologians. He was elected president of the student body and was graduated with the highest academic average in his class. From Crozer he went to Boston University (Ph.D., 1955), where, in seeking a firm foundation for his own theological and ethical inclinations, he began to focus his attention on conceptions of the relationship of man to God. In his doctoral dissertation, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman," his conclusions were fairly Niebuhrian. King himself conceived of God as an active, personal entity; man's salvation was to be found neither in the quest for social progress nor in the unaided power of reason; faith in God's guidance was the essential thing.

The Montgomery bus boycott.
While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a native Alabamian who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in 1953 and had four children. King had been pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., slightly more than a year when the city's small group of civil-rights advocates decided to contest racial segregation on that city's public bus system. On Dec. 1, 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks had refused to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger and as a consequence had been arrested for violating the city's segregation law. Black activists formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to boycott the transit system and chose King as their leader. He had the advantage of being a young, well-trained man who was too new in town to have made enemies; he was generally respected, and his family connections and professional standing would enable him to find another pastorate should the boycott fail.
In his first speech to the group as its president, King declared:


We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.
These words introduced to the nation a fresh voice, a skillful rhetoric, an inspiring personality, and in time a dynamic new doctrine of civil struggle. Although King's home was dynamited and his family's safety threatened, he continued to lead the boycott until, one year and a few weeks later, the blacks of Montgomery achieved their goal of desegregation of the city's buses.


The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Recognizing the need for a mass movement to capitalize on the successful Montgomery action, King set about organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform from which to speak. King lectured in all parts of the country and discussed problems of blacks with civil-rights and religious leaders at home and abroad. In February 1959 he and his party were warmly received by India's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; as the result of a brief discussion with followers of Gandhi about the Gandhian concepts of satyagraha ("devotion to truth"), King became more convinced than ever that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
In 1960 he moved to his native city of Atlanta, where he became copastor with his father of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. At this post he devoted most of his time to the SCLC and the civil-rights movement, declaring that the "psychological moment has come when a concentrated drive against injustice can bring great, tangible gains." His thesis was soon tested as he agreed to support the sit-in demonstrations undertaken by local black college students. In late October he was arrested with 33 young people protesting segregation at the lunch counter in an Atlanta department store. Charges were dropped, but King was sentenced to Reidsville State Prison Farm on the pretext that he had violated his probation on a minor traffic offense committed several months earlier. The case assumed national proportions, with widespread concern over his safety, outrage at Georgia's flouting of legal forms, and the failure of President Dwight Eisenhower to intervene. King was released only upon the intercession of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy--an action so widely publicized in the black community throughout the nation that it was felt to have contributed substantially to Kennedy's slender election victory eight days later.

In the years from 1960 to 1965 King's influence reached its zenith. The tactics of active nonviolence (sit-ins, protest marches) aroused the devoted allegiance of many blacks and liberal whites in all parts of the country, as well as support from the administrations of presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. There were also notable failures, as at Albany, Ga. (1961-62), when King and his colleagues failed to achieve their desegregation goals for public parks and other facilities.


The letter from the Birmingham jail.
In Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963, King's campaign to end segregation at lunch counters and in hiring practices drew nationwide attention when police turned dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators. King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, including hundreds of schoolchildren. His supporters did not, however, include all the black clergy of Birmingham, and he was strongly opposed by some of the white clergy who had issued a statement urging the blacks not to support the demonstrations. From the Birmingham jail King wrote a letter of great eloquence in which he spelled out his philosophy of nonviolence:

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Near the end of the Birmingham campaign, in an effort to draw together the multiple forces for peaceful change and to dramatize to the nation and to the world the importance of solving the U.S. racial problem, King joined other civil-rights leaders in organizing the historic March on Washington. On Aug. 28, 1963, an interracial assembly of more than 200,000 gathered peaceably in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all citizens under the law. Here the crowds were uplifted by the emotional strength and prophetic quality of King's famous "I have a dream" speech, in which, using biblical phraseology, King emphasized his faith that all men, someday, would be brothers.

The rising tide of civil-rights agitation produced, as King had hoped, a strong effect on national opinion and resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities, as well as in employment. That eventful year was climaxed by the award to King of the Nobel Prize for Peace at Oslo in December.


Challenges of the final years.
The first signs of opposition to King's tactics from within the civil-rights movement surfaced during the March 1965 demonstrations at Selma, Ala., which were aimed at dramatizing the need for a federal voting-rights law that would provide legal support for the enfranchisement of blacks in the South. King organized an initial march from Selma to the state capitol building in Montgomery but did not lead it himself; the marchers were turned back by state troopers with nightsticks and tear gas. He determined to lead a second march, despite an injunction by a federal court and efforts from Washington to persuade him to cancel it. Heading a procession of 1,500 marchers, black and white, he set out across Pettus Bridge outside Selma until the group came to a barricade of state troopers. But, instead of going on and forcing a confrontation, he led his followers in kneeling in prayer and then unexpectedly turned back. This decision cost King the support of many young radicals who were already faulting him for being too cautious. The suspicion of an "arrangement" with federal and local authorities--vigorously but not entirely convincingly denied--clung to the Selma affair. The country was nevertheless aroused, resulting in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Throughout the nation, impatience with the lack of greater substantive progress encouraged the growth of black militancy. Especially in the slums of the large Northern cities, King's religious philosophy of nonviolence was increasingly questioned. The rioting in the Watts district of Los Angeles (August 1965) demonstrated the depth of the urban race problem. In an effort to meet the challenge of the ghetto, King and his forces initiated a drive against racial discrimination in Chicago at the beginning of the following year. The chief target was to be segregation in housing. After a spring and summer of rallies, marches, and demonstrations, an agreement was signed between the city and a coalition of blacks, liberals, and labour organizations, calling for various measures to strengthen the enforcement of existing laws and regulations with respect to housing. But this agreement was to have little effect; the impression remained that King's Chicago campaign was nullified partly because of the opposition of that city's powerful mayor, Richard J. Daley, and partly because of the unexpected complexities of Northern racism.

In Illinois and Mississippi alike, King was now being challenged and even publicly derided by young black power enthusiasts. In the face of mounting criticism, King's response was to broaden his approach to include concerns other than racism that were equally detrimental to his people's progress. On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City and again on the 15th at a mammoth peace rally in that city, he committed himself irrevocably to opposing the United States's involvement in the Vietnam War. Once before, in early January 1966, he had condemned the war, but official outrage from Washington and strenuous opposition within the black community itself had caused him to relent. He next sought to widen his base by forming a coalition of the poor of all races that would address itself to such economic problems as poverty and unemployment. It was a species of populism, seeking to enroll janitors, hospital workers, seasonal labourers, and the destitute of Appalachia, along with the student militants and pacifist intellectuals. His endeavours along these lines, however, did not engender much support in any segment of the population.

His plans for a Poor People's March to Washington were interrupted in the spring of 1968 by a trip to Memphis, Tenn., in support of a strike by that city's sanitation workers. On April 4 he was killed by a sniper's bullet while standing on the balcony of the motel where he and his associates were staying. On March 10, 1969, the accused white assassin, James Earl Ray, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.


Assessment.
The contribution of Martin Luther King to the black freedom movement was that of a leader who was able to turn protests into a crusade and to translate local conflicts into moral issues of nationwide concern. Successful in awakening the black masses and galvanizing them into action, he won his greatest victories by appealing to the consciences of white Americans and thus bringing political leverage to bear on the federal government in Washington. The strategy that broke the segregation laws of the South, however, proved inadequate to solve more complex racial problems elsewhere. King was only 39 at the time of his death--a leader in midpassage who never wavered in his insistence that nonviolence must remain the essential tactic of the movement nor in his faith that all Americans would some day attain racial and economic justice. King wrote a number of books. The most important for an understanding of his career are: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958), Why We Can't Wait (1964), and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967).

BIBLIOGRAPHY.
King's letters, speeches, sermons, and other documents are collected in Clayborne Carson et al. (eds.), The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1992- ). James Melvin Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986, reissued 1991), is an anthology.
Biographies include David Levering Lewis, King, 2nd ed. (1978); Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound (1982, reprinted 1994); Frederick L. Downing, To See the Promised Land (1986), a psychohistorical study; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters (1988), focusing on King in the history of the American civil-rights movement, 1954-63; and David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986).

Studies of his intellectual influences and sources are John J. Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1982); Peter J. Albert and Ronald Hoffman (eds.), We Shall Overcome (1990); Lewis V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1991); Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources (1992); and James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991). Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word That Moved America (1995), analyzes his spoken sermons.



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