The Life of Dr. King
Martin Luther King Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Ga. His mother was the daughter of a prominent Baptist preacher, and his father was an assistant minister in the church her father pastored, Ebenezer Baptist. Martin grew up in the middle-class African American community of Atlanta protected from the worst of segregated life in the South of that time. A brillant student, he graduated from high school in 1944 at the age of 15 and entered Morehouse College, considered the finest of the predominantly African American colleges of the South. Upon graduation from Morehouse, he entered predominantly white Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pa., in 1948. Graduating at the top of his class from Crozer in 1951, King moved on to Boston University for graduate study. He emerged from his higher education with a Ph.D. and strong commitments to inclusive ecumenical religion, Ghandian non-violent social change strategies and the potential of the African American Church as a force for social change. He consciously chose to return to the South to put those commitments to work by accepting a call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Soon after arriving in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. was recruited into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. Extending over nearly a full year (Dec. 1955- Nov. 1956), the Montgomery movement ended segregation on the city buses of Birmingham and elevated King to the leadership of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Out of this Montgomery experience, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 and wrote Stride Toward Freedom. His family moved to Atlanta in 1960 where he became the assistant to his father who had succeeded his father-in-law as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. He traveled widely in support of civil rights activity and spreading the gospel of non-violent direct action. He was deeply involved in a civil rights campaign in Albany, Ga., in 1961. That campaign was generally considered a major setback for the Civil Rights Movement and for King's leadership.
1963 became the year for the most memorable events in King's career as a civil rights leader. It began in Birmingham, Ala., where the local SCLC organization began a boycott of downtown stores in order to force desegregation of public places and the hiring of African Americans. In the midst of changing its whole structure, Birmingham city government was unable to respond. Director of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, ordered police and fire forces to respond with force and arrests. When demonstrations faltered, King demonstrated and went to jail from which he wrote his most eloquent call for the end of segregation, "Letter from Birmingham City Jail." Soon children were added to the demonstrations, and "Bull" Connor responded with police dogs and fire hoses. The resulting crisis forced a negotiaged settlement between downtown business leaders and the Birmingham movement. In August the March on Washington brought King to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act included desegregation of public accommodations and fair employment (affirmative action). This enacted the goals of Birmingham on the national level. 1964 also brought recognition of King's achievements in the form of the Nobel Peace Prize. 1965 was about voting rights. It featured a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to gather public support followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that put federal authorities in areas with histories of discrimination to enforce the right to vote. This was the last major victory of the Civil Rights Movement.
Then began a very difficult time in King's career. A series of civil disorders in major northern cities began with the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1965. King sought to address urban issues through a campaign in Chicago. It focused on housing, seeking to strengthen the rights of renters through tenant unions and to challenge racially segregated neighborhoods. Violence related to marches into white neighborhoods created a crisis that led to an agreement between King and Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago. King left town and Chicago remained essentially the same. Out of this experience King wrote "Where Do We Go From Here?" In it he defended his interracial, non-violent approach against the use of the Black Power slogan and described racism in ways that remain relevant, asking whether America would choose racism or democracy.
King became convinced that the War in Vietnam was draining resources and attention away from the struggle against racism. Finally, in 1967 he spoke out against the war. This solidified his position as a moral leader but made an enemy of President Lyndon Johnson. Increasingly, King was discouraged about the capacity of the United States to address its continuing racism. Recognizing the link between race and povery, King and SCLC launched a "Poor People's Campaign." This Campaign featured a march on Washington by poor people of various races who demanded either a job or an adequate income for all. It was in the midst of this campaign that he joined in support of a unionization effort by the mostly African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. While there, he was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. His body was returned to Atlanta for a public funeral and burial that was televised around the world.
Martin Luther King Jr. became the most widely recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement. That movement was committed to non-violent social change. While some others lost faith in either non-violence or social change, he remained faithful to the originating faith of the Movement. On King Day may we remember him for that dual faith by seeking to rekindle it in our time.
Dr. Warren Copeland
Professor of Religion