By Mr. Walter Napier, 514 Air Mobility Wing
/ Published January 15, 2021
“And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
–Martin Luther King Jr. (“Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), was born Michael King Jr. to Reverend Michael King Sr. and Alberta King in Atlanta, Georgia. Rev. King became the lead pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931, after previously serving as the church’s assistant pastor. In 1934, the church sent Rev. King on a multinational trip that included a period of time in Germany. While in Germany, the reverend was inspired by the actions of Martin Luther, the 16th century protestant preacher, and upon his return began styling himself and his son as Martin Luther King.
The Kings lived in Atlanta and were a middle class family with strong ties to the community. The impressionable Martin quickly discovered the sting of intolerance at the age of six when he began to attend a segregated school. A neighborhood playmate of King’s, a young white boy, not only went to a different school but was also informed by his parents he was no longer allowed to play with Martin.
The young King did well in school, and was accepted into Morehouse College at the age of 15. The college had a work program set up to help students pay tuition, so King and a few classmates were sent to a tobacco farm in Connecticut the summer before school began, where the pay they earned would be sent to the college to pay the tuition. While in Connecticut, King was stunned at the lack of segregation and racism he experienced in comparison with his native south. Black and white residents attended the same churches, and there were not strict guidelines on segregating races at places like restaurants or theaters.
After graduating from Morehouse at the age of 18, King decided to continue his education, going on to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. While at Crozer, he was elected student body president despite the majority of the class being white. During his studies, he also became acquainted with the teachings and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, who used non-violent protest to push for social change. Gandhi’s approach inspired King, who would later use non-violent opposition in his own efforts to combat injustice.
After earning a bachelor’s in divinity from Crozer in 1951, he would go on to attend Boston University, where he studied man’s relationship to God. During this period, he also met Coretta Scott, whom he would marry in 1953. King would graduate with his doctorate in 1955, with the dissertation “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
The Civil Rights Movement:
The Civil Rights Movement is not one particular movement, but a collection of struggles to attain equal rights and representation under the law. Abolitionists before the Civil War, Reconstructionist in the period following the Civil War, and black veterans returning from World War I were all part of the larger movement to attain civil liberties for black Americans. The struggle for civil rights and equality continue to this day, as the events of 2020 have driven a renewed examination on social justice.
The period most associated as the Civil Rights Movement, however, is the period between roughly 1955 and 1968. Beginning in 1954, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren made a number of landmark case decisions. The first major case was Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which began knocking out the foundations of “separate but equal” set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The movement would see many heroes arise in the fight for social justice, including Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Malcolm X. For many, however, Martin Luther King Jr. would become the central figure and key leader in the struggle.
Dr. King’s first major piece of activism would take place during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white person, and was subsequently arrested. King, recently graduated from Boston University, had taken a position as a local pastor in Montgomery. Local activists established a boycott of the city’s transportation system, and they elected King to lead them. He was young, professional, educated, well spoken, and had already earned the respect of the local community. He also had not been in the community long enough to make enemies. King became an excellent choice, as to the aforementioned qualities he added resolution and determination. Despite his life and family being threatened, and his home being bombed, Dr. King remained steadfast in his mission. A little over a year after the boycott had begun, Montgomery desegregated the bus system.
Building off of the success in Montgomery, King decided to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the SCLC, he could establish an organization that was national as opposed to local, giving him a larger voice and countering social issues across the country. He would soon move back to Atlanta, and become co-pastor with his father, allowing him to devote much of his time to the SCLC.
In May of 1960, King was pulled over and cited for driving without a license despite having an Alabama driver’s license. He would pay a fine, but unbeknownst to him, his lawyer had entered him into a plea deal placing him on probation. As Dr. King continued his support for non-violent social unrest, he was arrested during a sit-in staged by the Atlanta Student Movement. King, charged with breaking his plea deal, was given four months hard labor within six days of his arrest, and was transferred within 24-hours of the ruling.
The harsh treatment garnered national attention. President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced intense criticism for his failure to address the situation, while presidential candidate John F. Kennedy condemned the court’s decision, even contacting the Georgia governor. Kennedy’s direct involvement helped secure Dr. King’s release, and Martin Luther King Sr. would then go on to publicly endorse Kennedy for president. It is believed that the support of the black community, following his stance against King’s arrest, gave him the votes to defeat Richard Nixon.
The next major set piece for King took place in Birmingham, Alabama. King and the SCLC had lost some steam because of a previous campaign in Albany, Georgia, which while long lasting in its effort, failed to garner any major changes in desegregating public parks. In Birmingham, King continued his mission to end segregation at lunch counters. His activities in Alabama gained national attention after the local police used water hoses and attack dogs on the protestors, including children. King was arrested for the protest and while in jail wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” (April 16, 1963)
The letter was written in response to a number of church leaders who stood against King, and pleaded with him to wait for a better time to protest or to do so in a “legal” fashion. The letter was more than just a rebuke of those who stood against the movement, it was Dr. King putting into writing why he was taking a stand and an explanation of his beliefs on the non-violent direct action he was taking. He states that while they implore him to use legal means, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’” He also quotes St. Augustine in that “an unjust law is no law at all,” to explain that part of the problem are the laws themselves.
The Birmingham campaign also led to the August 1963 march on Washington. More than 200,000 people gathered in the National Mall, and demanded equal rights under the law. During the event, Dr. King gave what most consider to be his most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech. (August 28, 1963):
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
By 1964, the civil rights movement achieved a major piece of legislative success. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in hiring practices, voting requirements, public accommodations and schools. Dr. King was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year for his dedication to social change and advancement through non-violent means. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, expanding voters’ rights, privileges and protections to ensure the voters’ 14th and 15th Amendment rights were being upheld, especially in southern states.
Dr. King continued his fight for social equality up until his very last days. On April 3, 1968, King would give his final and disconcertingly prophetic speech. Drawing an allusion to Moses seeing the Promised Land from a mountain top, but being unable to enter it he said:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The following day, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered by James Earl Ray outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39-years-old. In celebration of this hero’s life, cities and states across the country began setting aside a day to remember Dr. King throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King, which is now celebrated annually on the third Monday of January. As the United States continues to face questions on social justice, in memory of Dr. King I will conclude with a quote from a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?”:
“I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil-rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.” (August 16, 1967)