The Life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr Biography
Martin Luther King Jr. was a twenty-six year old Baptist minister when he got involved with the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. He had been in town a little over a year with his fledgling family. As he spoke up in meetings it was quickly recognized that here was a man who could move people with words.
In his first public speech, Martin Luther King said, "We are not here advocating violence. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout the nation that we are a Christian people. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest."
King became the leader of a bus boycott in Montgomery, designed to end segregation on city buses. This brought him into contact with the national correspondents of a new medium that would make him famous: television. It also filled his mailbox with hate mail.
The People of Dr Martin Luther King Jr
The Reverend A. D. Williams was the maternal grandfather of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1894, Williams founded the venerated Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He was also a founding member of the Atlanta NAACP.
The son-in-law of Rev. Williams was Martin Luther King, Sr.—known as "Daddy" King—one of nine children born to sharecroppers. Daddy King quit school when he was fifteen years old. He obtained a minister's license and preached on a traveling circuit for a few years.
When Daddy King was twenty-one, he decided to go back to school, where his test results got him assigned to the fifth grade. Within five years, during which he worked full time as a delivery driver and preached on weekends, he became a high school graduate.
Daddy King married Alberta Williams, who was everything he was not—educated, genteel, sophisticated. He entered Morehouse College at twenty-seven, and earned a degree in four years by going to school year-round. A year after Daddy King graduated from college, the Reverend Williams died of a sudden heart attack and Daddy King was called to lead the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The Young Dr Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the grandson of a slave on his father's side but eminently endowed with intelligence, eloquence, and courage. He grew up secure and well-loved in a prosperous family that was safely ensconced in the black elite of Atlanta. His father was a powerful preacher; a fire and brimstone man who believed the Bible to be the literal Word of God. Daddy King was against drinking, lewd dancing, and Socialism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was embarrassed by the emotive style of preaching for which his father was famous—stomping, shouting, and wailing from the pulpit. MLK said that Morehouse College, where he attained his degree in 1948, freed him from "the shackles of fundamentalism."
King went to Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania before he accepted a fellowship at Boston University to earn a Ph.D. In Boston, King worked to undermine popular perceptions about black behavior. Blacks were known to be careless about time so MLK became the most punctual man on campus. Blacks were loud and noisy, so MLK was calm and quiet. Blacks wore flashy, colorful clothes, but MLK always wore a perfectly-pressed conservative suit with sharply-shined dress shoes.
In Boston, Martin Luther King, Jr. became a leader among upper-class blacks. He drove a brand new Chevrolet, was a great dancer, and the black beauties of Boston loved him. It was there that he met his future wife, Coretta Scott, who was by all accounts beautiful and intelligent, with character and personality to spare. Daddy King had an Atlanta woman lined up for MLK to marry, and Coretta Scott was not enamored with the idea of being the wife of a minister. She wanted a career as a singer. But love had its way.
Martin Luther King, Jr. studied Marxism at Boston University and appreciated its anti-capitalism but ultimately rejected its atheism. His favorite thinkers turned out to be Walter Rauschenbusch, famous for his promotion of the Social Gospel; the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; and Gandhi.
Martin Luther King Jr Moves to Montgomery
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to the ministry of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a famous church, which sat across the street from the Alabama Supreme Court and diagonally across from the state capitol. The Dexter Avenue congregation was the black Baptist elite of Montgomery, mostly college-educated, with a reputation for being snobbish and highly political.
It was observed by a Montgomery newspaper man that King would quote Kant and Nietzsche to whites, but then slip into jive talk with blacks on the street.
Martin Luther King Learns to Work the Media
Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the first people to fully comprehend the power of national television. A good story needs expert casting, and King became the best at selecting villains. By skillfully provoking these villains, dramatic footage would be captured by the camera and broadcast across America.
King wanted northern white people in their homes to see blacks acting with great dignity while being brutally assaulted by Southern whites. He carefully picked those segregationists who were the most crude and ugly: Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus; Selma Sheriff Jim Clark; and Bull Connor of Birmingham.
King produced hypnotic stories for network television, full of action and confrontation, with moral tension aplenty. He always made sure that national network newsmen were on hand to capture on film any planned confrontation—in time for the nightly news programs.
Because of the activities of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Eisenhower proposed legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1957—the first civil-rights law since Reconstruction. Eisenhower also established what became the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960.
Consider the coverage television gave to Martin Luther King Jr. during his civil rights campaign. Dr. King reported that whenever he would talk about the Christian basis for his work, either the cameras would get turned off or it would be edited out. He said: “They aren’t interested in the why of what we are doing, only in the what of what we’re doing, and because they don’t understand the why they cannot really understand the what.”
The zenith in the career of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was reached in 1963. Early in that year, King led a desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama that was met with ferocious police dogs and water cannon, all captured on national television. This turned the tide for the civil rights movement, clearly capping blacks with the white hats and southern racists with the black hats.
The highpoint of 1963 was also the apex of Dr. King's life, as he led 250,000 protestors on a march through Washington DC, singing "We Shall Overcome," that ended at the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech. It was the largest demonstration for civil rights in American history. One year later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But other, more violent voices were being raised in the black community that preached Dr. King was too soft—the black racist Malcolm X; the proponent of "black power" Stokely Carmichael; and Eldridge Cleaver who said raping white women qualified as a legitimate act of insurrection. The Black Panther Party spokesman H. Rap Brown told black Americans to "get you some guns and kill the honkies."
Whereas Dr. King worked with whites to achieve the aims of the civil rights movement—indeed a multitude of whites were heavily involved in its successes, which frankly could not have been achieved without them—the new black militants took over the movement and purged it of its white members. At least the white males. The black men would allow white women to remain in the movement only if they would come to bed with them to prove they were not prejudiced.
Dr King Is Killed in Memphis
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was devastated when a march he planned in Memphis, Tennessee turned into a full blown black riot. 155 shops owned by whites on Beale Street were attacked and sixty people were hurt. Streets were blocked by angry black mobs; bricks were thrown at trucks, cars, and police cruisers. Windows were smashed and stores looted. White taxi-drivers and police officers were beaten, battered by flying objects, or stabbed. Then came a night of arson as blacks tried to burn down Memphis while chanting, "Burn Baby Burn!" Especially targeted were stores owned by Jews and Italians. No black-owned stores were touched.
A few days later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech, in which he said: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. . . . I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you."
Martin Luther King was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray—a lifelong member of the Democratic Party—the evening of 4 April, 1968. Blacks across America reacted with grief, anger, rioting, looting, arson, and destruction that went on for a week. 110 cities suffered from the riots, none more than Washington DC. 3,500 people were hurt and 46 killed.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only American honored with a federal holiday except for the Father of our Country George Washington.
My primary source for this article is the wonderful book The Fifties by David Halberstam. Additional material was gathered from The Sixties by Arthur Marwick; A History of the American People by Paul Johnson; and America: A Narrative History by Tindall & Shi.