April 4, 1968 — Martin Luther King Jr. was first directly affected by racism when he was just six years old. His best friend, who was white, told him: “I can’t play with you any more because my father says I can't.”
King was born in 1929 at Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a pastor and his mother a schoolteacher. They named their son Michael after his father. Later, following a visit to Germany where he studied the works of Reformation leader Martin Luther, Michael Snr changed his name to Martin Luther King Snr and that of his five-year-old son to Martin Luther King Jr.
When he was eight, King started working as a newspaper boy for the Atlanta Journal and became assistant manager of the delivery station at the age of 13.
He was an exceptional school student and in 1944 enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of 15. But there was one subject he struggled with: public speaking, for which he received a C!
In the 1950s and early 1960s the extent of discrimination against black people in the Southern states was astounding. Firstly, they were not allowed to live in white neighbourhoods.
But it went much further than that. White people had their own restrooms, elevators, building entrances, cemeteries, water fountains, even amusement-park cashier windows, all of which African Americans were forbidden to use.
The same rules applied to waiting rooms at bus and train stations and to public pools, phone booths, hospitals, residential homes for the elderly and infirm, and even prisons.
King’s first major role in the civil rights movement came in 1955 when African American Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus at Montgomery, Alabama. The police were called, she was arrested for violating the City Code and taken to police headquarters where she was bailed to appear in court.
At the time King was pastor at a Baptist church in Montgomery and in response to the Rosa Parks incident he helped to organise a boycott of the city’s buses – a protest that lasted well over a year. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation on Montgomery public transport was unconstitutional.
Encouraged by the success of the Montgomery campaign, King and other civil rights activists —mostly fellow ministers — founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was to seek full equality for African Americans through non-violent protest.
Their first big test came in 1961 when members of the black community in Albany, Georgia, were urged to protest peacefully against segregation in the city. King himself was arrested during the campaign but bailed out of jail by the famous evangelist, Dr Billy Graham.
Despite the protests, which went on for over a year, a Montgomery-style conclusion failed to emerge and the segregation laws of Albany remained unchanged.
The next target, in 1963, was Birmingham, Alabama, one of America’s most racially divided cities, where activists, led by King, used sit-ins and marches to protest against segregation, unfair hiring practices and other injustices.
The city’s response was to call out its police force and all the weapons of aggression at its disposal. But the protests were given nationwide media coverage and television viewers across the country were shocked to see the police using violence against peaceful protesters and attacking them with dogs and fire hoses.
The end result was that the segregation laws in Birmingham were repealed, Martin Luther King Jr. became a prominent American figure and the civil rights movement gained a national audience.
Later that year, King helped organise the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Held on August 28 and attended by between 200,000 and 300,000 people, it was to be a watershed occasion in the history of the American civil rights movement.
And it was to be made famous by King’s “I have a dream” speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. But it nearly wasn’t . . .
The singer Mahalia Jackson, hailed as the “Queen of Gospel”, became one of King’s close friends and accompanied him on a number of rallies and demonstrations where he delivered earlier, less passionate versions of his “I have a dream” speech.
In Washington, King was about half way through his prepared text when, according to Clarence Jones, one of his advisers, Mahalia, standing nearby, called out: "Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”
Jones said it was like a "mandate to respond," and King's body language changed from lecturer to preacher. "Then he takes the text of the written speech that's been prepared, and he slides it to the left side of the lectern, grabs the lectern and looks out on more than 250,000 people there assembled.
"I have never seen him speak the way I saw him on that day," Jones added. "It was as if some cosmic transcendental force came down and occupied his body. It was the same body, the same voice, but the voice had something I had never heard before.”
The speech certainly influenced the passing in the following year of the Civil Rights Act. Ninety-nine years after the abolition of slavery, the Act outlawed racial segregation and discrimination anywhere in the USA.
But that wasn’t all that 1964 had to offer for Martin Luther King Jr. In October he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace “for his dynamic leadership of the Civil Rights movement and steadfast commitment to achieving racial justice through nonviolent action.”
At 35, he was the youngest ever person to receive the award and typically, King donated his $54,600 Prize money to the movement’s development.
King’s ongoing war against injustice took him in 1968 to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of a strike by sanitation workers. While standing with friends on the balcony of his motel he was shot by James Earl Ray, an escaped convict and known racist.
King died in hospital an hour later, his death provoking riots across the country. Ray was to be sentenced to 99 years in prison for the crime. Still behind bars, he died in 1998.
Posthumously, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. The citation read:
“Martin Luther King Jr.was the conscience of his generation. He gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to fulfil the promises of our founding fathers for our humblest citizens, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream for America. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet.”
In 2011, 48 years after the March on Washington, a memorial to King was dedicated not far from the Lincoln Memorial, from where he delivered THAT speech.
And the third Monday of January every year is Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a public holiday.
Published: March 21, 2020
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