(Photo by Fred Ward)
Many things have been written or said about Martin Luther King, Jr. Not everyone agreed with what he was doing, especially those in the south. He believed in an America where anyone, regardless of race, religion, or creed, could all have the rights written in the Bill of Rights.
Why should black people, because of the color of their skin, be put down?? Why should they be segregated and denied the most basic human rights of health care, good schools and a nice place to live and work?? He exhorted us, as a nation, to look at what we were doing to the black population and take a stand for their rights.
I would be the first to admit that I really didn't know too much about Martin Luther King, Jr. before I started researching him. I found him to be a very interesting person and quite intelligent. So, who was he??
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born at home on Tuesday, January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His parents were Martin Luther, Sr. and Alberta King. He had an older sister, Christine and a younger brother, Alfred. His maternal grandfather was a preacher and his paternal grandparents were sharecroppers in Stockbridge, Georgia.
He was born into a world where segregation was the law. Where his boyhood best friend, who was white, wasn't allowed to play with him once they started school. Where black people went to separate bathrooms, drank from separate water fountains, couldn't eat in "white's only" restaurants, and had to give up their seats on buses if a white person wanted it.
Martin was a very intelligent boy. He was able to enter Morehouse College at 15 simply on the strength of his scores on the college entrance exam taken during his junior year in High School (he skipped 9th and 12th grades). In 1948, after graduating from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts, Martin was ordained as a minister at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where his father and grandfather were ministers (he was 19).
Martin felt, as his father and grandfather before him, that his calling was to the Christian ministry and so he entered Crozer Theological Seminary. It was while he was at Crozer that he came into contact with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi had tried to free India from British rule by means of a "peaceful revolution". Martin also read some of Henry David Thoreau's writings. Thoreau stated that "If enough people would follow their conscience and disobey unjust laws that there would be a peaceful revolution".
Martin graduated from Crozer with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951. While he was at college, he met Coretta Scott and on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parent's home in Marion, Alabama, they were married. They would go on to have 4 children - Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice. Martin attended Boston University and graduated on June 5, 1955 with a Ph. D. in systematic theology. Upon graduating, he accepted a call to preach at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
While living in Montgomery, Martin was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus to a white man. The MIA organized the boycott on the bus company that lasted 381 days and nearly bankrupted them. In 1957, Martin helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was its first president (he held this position until his death in 1968). In 1959, he resigned as minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist and moved back to Atlanta to direct the SCLC. He became the co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.
With recognition comes the possibility of people violently disagreeing with you. Martin was arrested 30 times and spent time in jail (where he wrote "Letter From Birmingham Jail"), had his house bombed, was arrested once for driving 30 in a 25 mph zone (haven't we all done this at one time or another??), was stabbed, and finally, was assasinated. In 1964, because of his work in the Civil Rights Movement, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being someone "who had contributed the most to the furtherance of peace among men".
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voters Rights Bill into law. This law guaranteed that "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination". From March 16 - 21, 1965, Martin lead a group of 3200 people in a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest voting procedures. At one point in the march they were met by a wall of State Troopers who advanced on them with clubs, whips and tear gas as the whites on the sidewalks cheered. By the time the confrontation was over, 2 minsters (1 white,1 African-American) lay dead and over 70 people were injured (17 of whom had to be hospitalized). This was the most violent confrontation that Martin had ever experienced.
In 1968, Martin went to Memphis, Tennessee to help out the sanitation workers. They were protesting their deplorable wages and working conditions. I remember a story I read about 2 black workers who were not allowed in the building with the white men while on break and when it started to rain, they took shelter in one of the garbage trucks. The rain shorted out the mechanism that controlled the compactor and the men didn't have enough time to get out of the truck - they were crushed to death. On the morning of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assasinated by James Earl Ray. Ray would later be caught in London, England and on March 9, 1969, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Martin's funeral was held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and at Morehouse College, the President declared a day of mourning and flags were flown half-mast. He is buried in what is now the Freedom Hall Plaza and on May 5, 1977, the 23 acre site that surrounds him was listed as a National Historic Landmark. On October 10, 1980, it was made a National Historic Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
It took 15 years for Martin's birthday to become a national holiday and it wasn't easy. There was fierce opposition from several sources, not the least of which was Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina), he accused Martin of being a communist. There were also those who said that others deserved to have their birthdays honored more, that taxes would be intolerable, that having to pay federal employees whether they worked or not was going to be bad for taxpayers. "Senator Bob Dole pointed out to those critics, 'I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination'." Four days after Martin was killed, Representative John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan) submitted legislation for his birthday to be made into a holiday. In 1970, 6 million people signed a petition (it's believed to be the largest number ever to sign a petition) to have Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday made into a holiday. Their cause was aided by Representative Shirley Chisholm (Democrat, New York) who helped John Conyers submit new legislation each session of Congress.
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law into being that made Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday a national holiday. But, it wasn't until January 20, 1986 that we celebrated it for the first time.
There are many things you can say about Martin Luther King, Jr. - that he was a visionary, a riotmonger, or simply a dreamer. But to those who believe in what he was saying, he was very truly a man who had a dream.
(Sources used Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on the Net - The Holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biographical Sketch, Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Net, Seattle Times: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Seattle Times: MLK - The Holiday)
I Have A Dream - the whole speech