Martin Luther King Jnr (1929-1968)

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.
Martin Luther King Jnr – I have a dream Speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC 28 August 1963

Martin Luther King Jr, the great civil rights leader, spoke these words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, USA in August 1963 to a crowd of over 250,000 people who were demanding equal justice for all American citizens.

Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1929 into a close-knit African-American Baptist family who had long been involved in civil rights. Although African-Americans transported to America as slaves had been freed when the Civil War ended in 1865 racism and segregation remained, especially in the southern states. As a boy Martin experienced racism and segregation in schools, restaurants and hospitals and on public transport and other public facilities. Many African-Americans were still denied the right to vote.

Martin was an accelerated student graduating from his segregated school to Morehouse College at the age of fifteen Three years later he graduated with a BA degree in sociology and entered the Christian ministry because he believed this would give him a base from which to effect social change. He then went to Crozer Theological Seminary where he was influenced by the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi. He later said that from his background he gained his regulating Christian ideals and from Gandhi he learned his operational technique. He said that he found in the non-violent resistance philosophy of Gandhi the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.

In 1953 he married Coretta Scott who was also from Alabama and together they had four children.

While still a student Martin Luther King joined and then became a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the leading black rights movement at that time. He was a tireless advocate for them. In 1955 he completed a doctorate in theology at Boston University and returned to Alabama where he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. His church soon became a centre for social change.

That year a black Montgomery woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to give her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Improvement Association with Dr King as their leader organised a boycott of the transport system which lasted for 381 days until the US Supreme Court found Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional. Montgomery was forced to desegregate the transport system.

In 1960 Dr King and his family moved back to Atlanta, Georgia where he became co-pastor with his father of Ebenezer Baptist Church. In 1963 Dr King organised a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience in Birmingham, Alabama which he called the most thoroughly segregated big city in the US. During the campaign more than 3,300 African-Americans including Dr King were jailed for violating segregation laws. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was written in response to a statement by eight white clergymen questioning the propriety of their actions. As a result of this campaign civil rights movements demonstrated across the country and in June President Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation to Congress.

In August 1963 250,000 people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in solidarity with African-Americans and Dr King delivered his I have a dream speech to the crowd. In that year civil rights for African-Americans made more progress than at any time since the end of the Civil War.

In June 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed which authorised the federal government to enforce desegregation and outlawed discrimination in public facilities and in employment. Later that year Dr King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man to have received the award:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.
Martin Luther King Jnr – Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech 1964

In March 1965 Dr King organised a march from Selma to Montgomery which ended in prayer and retreat when confronted by state troopers. However as a result the Voting Rights Act was passed which authorised federal examiners to register qualified voters and outlawed practices such as literacy tests aimed to exclude black and poor Americans from voting.

In 1965 thirty-five people died in rioting in the Watts district of Los Angeles. This was the first of many urban racial disturbances over the next few summers. At all times Dr King appealed for peace.

On April 3rd 1968 Dr King, despite threats to his life, went to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike by the city’s garbage workers against low wages and intolerable working conditions. In a sermon that evening he said:

The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question…

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 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.
Martin Luther King Jnr – I’ve been to the Mountaintop Sermon in Memphis Tennessee 3 April 1968

The next day Martin Luther King Jr, aged 39, was shot dead while standing on the balcony of his motel.

Dr King’s legacy was the acceleration of civil liberties for all Americans but especially for the black and the poor. With legislation forcing the desegregation of schools and other public facilities and universal voting rights came a new sense of dignity and worth. In his short life Dr King was arrested thirty times for his involvement in civil rights activities and spent time in prison, he was physically assaulted and his home was bombed. Despite frequent criticism from more radical activists he never lost his belief in peaceful protest and resistance.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Martin Luther King Jnr – I have a dream Speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC 28 August 1963


Theme: International racism and anti-racism – Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination