January 17, 2022 commemorates the life of Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader. He was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was assassinated and died on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. In his short 39 years, he became the focal point for the peaceful movement struggling against segregation and disenfranchisement, among other issues.
One of King’s earliest experiences with bigotry occurred when he was a child. He had a white friend. When they started school, they went to segregated schools. The parents of the white boy decided their son could no longer play with a black child. When King told his parents, they told him about slavery and racism. The explanation made him angry, but his parents reminded him that, as a Christian, he needed to love everyone. However, his parents fought discrimination whenever they encountered it. He suffered many incidents involving bigotry over the years.
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Following a family tradition, King was licensed as a minister, in February 1948, shortly after delivering his first sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. His faith was an integral part of his philosophy, and that led him to find ways to fight injustice that were nonviolent.
Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King were married on June 18, 1953. She, too, had been involved in the civil rights movement. They had four children, Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).
Activism and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In 1955, King organized the Montgomery bus boycott. It was in response to two incidents involving young, black girls who were forced to give their seats to white people. It lasted more than a year. His role in the boycott and his subsequent arrest brought him national recognition. The effort ended in victory. The case of Browder v. Gayle resulted in a ruling by The United States District Court prohibiting racial segregation on Montgomery public buses.
Two years later, he and other prominent civil rights leaders established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was elected the first president. He led the organization’s efforts to organize, protest, demonstrate, and march in an effort to make sure all citizens were free to enjoy their civil rights.
In 1959, King returned to Georgia. Soon after, he received a ticket because he didn’t have a Georgia license even though he had a valid Alabama license. He did not realize that in addition to the fine he paid, there was a probationary sentence. When he was arrested for his part in the 1960 sit-in in a restaurant, he was given a four-month sentence at hard labor. The severe sentence captured national attention. Public pressure and pleas from several public figures, including John F. Kennedy, prevailed, and he was released two days later.
The 1961 Albany Movement of 1961 was focused on desegregation. King was one of the many who were arrested. He was offered the choice of a $178 fine or 45 days in jail. He chose jail, but three days later, Billy Graham posted bail. In early 1963, he found himself in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, for his part in the demonstrations.
“I Have a Dream”
On August 28, 1963, approximately 250,000 participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was here that King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1965, Selma, Alabama, became the focal point for peaceful demonstrations. Violence against the demonstrators by police and mobs resulted in March 7, 1965, being referred to as “Bloody Sunday.”
The Vietnam War
Initially, King was reluctant to make public comments about the Vietnam War. He feared it would interfere with his civil rights work. Eventually, he relented and spoke out against the war. He believed the money being spent on the war would be better spent solving society’s problems. His opposition lost him some support among white allies, including President Johnson and Billy Graham.
King also spoke out against capitalism. He supported some form of democratic socialism that would result in an economy that would benefit everyone. His last major undertaking was the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. It involved the quest for economic justice. King believed major changes needed to occur if equality was to be achieved. King continued to organize nonviolent demonstrations until his death.
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