Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, Martin Luther King junior had a happy childhood. The family grew up comfortable and the King home was one filled with love.
The Baptist church was at the heart of life for Martin. Social life revolved around the church. Martin went to Sunday school there and sang in the choir. Martin got on with everyone. He was naturally skilled in working with people.
Martin soon realised that racist attitudes were everywhere in American society at the time. Black people were discriminated against in many different ways. Despite the hatred many white people had for black people, Martin’s mother told Martin that it was his duty as a Christian to return hatred with love. She told him to stand tall and be confident in himself. Even though the world was telling him he was worth nothing, Martin must hold onto his inner value and sense of worth.
At school, Martin worked hard and loved to learn. He enjoyed reading and also wrote speeches. While still Young he realised what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to help black people in the fight against injustice. But how he would do that he did not know.
This is often how dreams and aspirations start out. At first there is just a sense or intuition of what you would like to do. Over time the details become clearer.
When he went to College, Martin read about Henry David Thoreau who protested against slavery and got thrown in jail for refusing to pay tax. He stood up for a principle and he did it in a peaceful way. Martin liked this.
Martin decided to become a minister and would use his influence to speak out against discrimination against black people. This was how he would express his care for his people. Martin realised that he spoke very well, and when he gave speeches, he moved and inspired people. His calling in life was becoming clearer.
Martin was still hungry to learn and wanted to continue his education. He went to a theological seminary where he studied the teachings of people like Mahatma Gandhi. Like Thoreau, Gandhi believed change could happen through peaceful protest. He had shown how it was done in India. After he graduated top of his class, Martin continued his studies in Boston University. There he met his wife, Coretta.
Even though he was a natural speaker, Martin got nervous before giving speeches in front of crowds. But he understood the most effective way to communicate and connect with people: Speak honestly, from the heart. This would naturally lead them into prayer.
Despite the fact that life was easier for a black person in the north of the United States, Martin decided he would return to live in the south. It was here that the people needed him the most. There he would take up his ministry. He and Coretta moved to Alabama.
One of the first things he did when he started his ministry was encouraged people to register to vote. This was the way to change unjust laws. The Kings soon had a daughter they called ‘Yoki’.
Around this time Rosa Parks, a black woman, got on a bus and refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus as the law required. She was arrested. In support of her, Martin and other black leaders decided they would boycott the buses. This meant the bus company would lose money. People walked or rode together in cars, coming together in solidarity. This was the kind of peaceful protest that Martin had thought would begin to bring about real change.
The boycott lasted over a year. Martin was harassed by police and a fire bomb was thrown onto his porch. Eventually the US supreme court ruled that the laws separating white and black people on buses had to change. It was a great victory for black civil rights.
This was only the beginning. Soon after Martin and other leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Blacks in the south were facing increased violence and intimidation. Martin urged everyone to remain calm and not to react in violent ways. This was a real challenge and required lots of discipline.
In 1959, Martin went on a pilgrimage to India, the land of his hero, Gandhi. He noticed huge poverty and inequality in the country. But there was also peace. The trip deeply impacted him. He became more convinced of the power of peaceful protest.
Martin felt a deep calling to serve. He remarked that history had thrust something upon him and it was his duty not to turn away.
As the 60’s came around the civil rights movement gathered pace. There were sit-ins staged where black and white students sat at lunch counters that were ‘white only’. The police would come and drag them away and arrest them. But the protestors would not fight back. Martin too was arrested and sent to jail. He spoke eloquently before the court saying that the sit-ins were a protest against racial injustice.
Some time later Martin was arrested by police for a driving offense and was taken off to a prison two hundred miles away. He felt scared and alone. A campaign began to free him. Future president John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, who was a lawyer, helped get Martin out of jail.
Then the freedom rides began. Students in the north started taking buses south with blacks sitting in ‘whites only’ waiting areas. The buses were attacked and the freedom riders were arrested. But more and more students began to gather to the cause, staging further peaceful protests. Martin led marches all over Albany and gave speeches, leading people with the song ‘we shall overcome’. Songs were a good way to bring people together, creating a sense of courage and unity.
Despite all the protesting a lot of the laws did not change. The civil rights movement suffered many defeats. But this just made Martin more determined. They would persevere. They would never give up. They knew that their cause was just and what they were doing was right. It needed to be done.
Under Martin’s leadership the civil rights began to target Birmingham, Alabama, one of the places with the harshest laws segregating white and black people. There were sit-ins again and huge arrests. They also boycotted white businesses. They knew they had a lot of power here. Almost half of the town was black so if stores lost half of their customers it would hurt them.
The protestors marched. The police beat them and set the dogs on them. But still they did not waver. They stayed strong and calm.
Generally, Martin stayed away from the marches because if he was put in Jail, he would be a big loss the movement. But this time he decided he must march and risk his life with the others that were doing so. As expected, he was arrested and put in a dark, dank cell. He could not call anyone, not even a lawyer.
While in Jail he used his time productively. He wrote his famous ‘letter from Birmingham jail’, using toilet paper and newspapers. He wrote of the importance of disobeying unjust laws but always acting peacefully.
Even children became involved in the marches. Some were even put in jail too. They would escape from school to join the marches. Everyone wanted to play their part.
Many reporters were covering the violence that erupted from police at these marches. People all over the country could see what was happening in the newspapers and on television. Martin knew this would play to their advantage. Ordinary people would be outraged by what they were seeing.
Eventually, with white people suffering huge losses to their businesses the pressure began to tell. The city gave into the demands of the protestors and scrapped the racist laws. It was a great win for the civil rights movement. It set an example which could be followed in other parts of the country. Sit-ins and protests spread rapidly to other cities.
In 1963 president Kennedy brought in the civil rights bill.
Martin and other leaders followed this up with a great march on Washington, D.C. At the march Martin gave his famous ‘I have dream’ speech. He had a different speech prepared for that day but, on the spur of the moment, gave a speech he had used months previously. He went unscripted and spoke from his heart, outlining his vision for a future, more just American society. Martin’s speech voiced his vision, full of images of equality and community. His speech was inspiring and offered hope to the nation. Change could happen. Black people could be, as the old slave songs goes, ‘free at last, free at last’.
This was the greatest and most iconic moment in the civil rights movement.
In 1964, President Johnson signed the civil rights bill. The bill allowed all people to vote, banned discrimination and removed segregation from schools. The same year, Martin was awarded the Nobel peace prize. He donated the money that came with it to the civil rights cause.
Next Martin turned his attention to a campaign to get black people registered to vote so that they would have a voice. People had the right to vote but the voting offices made it difficult for people to register, by using literacy tests. The marches were getting attacked by police but soon President Johnson sent troops to protect them. Other groups began to march with the black marchers too in solidarity. These great marches led to the voting rights act in 1965.
But the struggle for freedom never ended for Martin. Too many people lived in poverty and did not have jobs. Martin realised that the root of a lot of these problems lay in poverty.
Martin was always deeply committed to peace yet others believed that violence was a more effective way to create change. He urged people to stay with the peaceful path. But he understood the rage and anger people felt. When one has no voice and is not listened to, he noted, violence is the way they express themselves.
In 1966, Martin and his family moved to Chicago, where many blacks lived. He thought it was important to live like most black people did, in run down houses and poor areas. So that’s what they did. It was the King family’s first taste of poverty. Martin led marches in Chicago demanding better living conditions for black people.
Martin received many threats on his life. But it did not put him off doing the work that he felt was right to do. In April 1968, Martin was in Memphis, working to help workers who were on strike. He was due to meet some of the civil rights leaders the next day. That evening he stepped out onto the balcony of the motel he was staying in. Martin was shot by an assassin and died.
The ‘King’ may have died but his dream has continued to live on. Like his hero Gandhi, today he stands as a shining light, an example and inspiration for those who seek the courage to do what is right and make the world a better place.
Before he died, Martin spoke about the values by which he lived and what he stood for. He said that we wanted to be remembered as someone who dedicated his life to serving others. His message was one of love.