Martin Luther King Jr I Have A Dream History Essay
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
“… I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of pilgrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring".
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring, and when this happens,
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"! …”
It was on August 28, 1963 at the March on Washington D.C. that Martin Luther King Jr. gave this historic speech but it still resonates in the American memory today. King - a Baptist minister and social activist - had waged a war against discrimination in the United States and led the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968. It was a non – violent battle inspired by methods developed by Mahatma Gandhi to protest colonial rule in India. A battle that would go on until equality was achieved.
Proclaiming King’s call for equality the speech was televised to the entire nation by the major networks – CBS, NBC and ABC. The nation heard the powerful speech that pushed King to the forefront of the movement against racial discrimination. And the nation saw him emerging as the most effective black leader in the country addressing the crowd of 250,000 out of which at least 25% were whites. It was a pleasing vision to King whose goal was to appeal to the moral sense of white America to get their support in Civil Rights Movement. King was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963. His stature rose not only to the height of the leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
Behind the pronouncement of this dream however, was a long struggle and slumber of slavery and segregation that black generations had been living in for centuries. The struggle that Martin Luther King, inherited by his birth in a black family.
Born on 15 January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, Michael Luther King, Jr. later named Martin Luther King, Jr. was second of three children of Alberta Christine Williams and Martin Luther King, Sr.
King Sr. the second of ten children of a poor sharecropper James Albert King had left his native place Stockbridge for Atlanta when he was barely sixteen. He worked odd jobs to study, and gradually developed respect and reputation as a preacher. He met Alberta Christine Williams, a graduate of Atlanta's Spelman College who had attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and had returned to Atlanta to teach. She was the daughter of the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, who presided over Atlanta's well-established Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, Sr. and Williams married and moved into the Williams’ large Victorian house on Auburn Avenue. Infant King saw the first light of this world in this house. King, Sr. started serving as assistant pastor at Ebenezer. After the senior pastor’s death in 1931, King, Sr. took over his duties.
King, Sr. was the member of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had led a successful campaign to make the salaries of white and black teachers equal. His courage and confidence made him a role model to King, Jr. This instilled confidence in King, Jr. and influenced him later in his inclination to extend the opportunities he had got to all blacks. “I have rarely ever met a person more fearless and courageous than my father, notwithstanding the fact that he feared for me. He never feared the autocratic and brutal person in the white community. If they said something to him that was insulting, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like it.” Martin Luther King recalled in his autobiography.
King, Jr. grew up in a congenial environment at home in a family where love was central. The friendly environment at home made him optimistic and friendly. He inherited a strong sense of justice and determination from his father who had a strong and dynamic personality. His gentle friendly nature was the influence of his mother who was soft spoken, easy going and warm.
Death of King’s grandmother in his late childhood had a tremendous effect on his development. He was attached to her so deeply that he couldn’t cope with the tragedy and jumped off the second story of a building! His parents tried to comfort him by explaining the doctrine of spiritual immortality and he became a strong believer in personal immortality.
Kings were a financially secure middle-class family that remained stable even during the times of the Great Depression. King, Jr. and his siblings received proper upbringing and far better education than other black children in the vicinity. He loved swimming and played on YMCA basketball teams. Though he seemed quite ordinary and average child, he was highly eloquent. While King enjoyed a happy childhood, he didn’t fail to feel the pain and problems of his playmates and the tragic poverty of those living around him.
However, nothing could spare him from the pains of racism. The system of racial segregation in Atlanta didn’t allow him and his black mates to swim in public pools, play in public parks, watch movies in main theatres, go to white schools, buy hamburger or coffee from the lunch counters of stores in downtown. The first instance of injustice that led King’s mother to explain to him the history of slavery and segregation came when he was forced to attend a different elementary school and was not allowed to play with his white playmates. Another incident that he remembered lifelong was when he was hardly eight year old and a white woman slapped him in one of the downtown stores. At high school, he won second prize in an oratory contest in Valdosta, Georgia. But the long bus ride back to Atlanta soured his joy of victory when he was compelled to stand in a segregated bus with other blacks so that the whites could sit. These encounters with discrimination were mild yet formative. King also learned that economic injustice was inseparable twin of racial injustice. He experienced this himself during a summer internship in a plant which he did against his father’s wish
“I had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous acts that grew out of it. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched, and had watched the Ku Klux Klan on its rides at night. I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts. All of these things had done something to my growing personality. I had come perilously close to resenting all white people.”
– Martin Luther King
(Stride Toward Freedom)
His family encouraged him to face and react to injustices with dignity and courage. His mother emphasized that racial segregation was a man made social system and not a natural law. Therefore his black skin should not make him feel inferior. The quiet strength of his mother and the powerful personality of his father played a vital role in the formation of King’s personality and instilled in him a sense of self-esteem.
Even before King could read, he just liked the idea of having books and kept them around him. He even learnt to recite scriptures when he was not even five. Looking at his pre-mature intellect, his parents enrolled him to the elementary school hiding his age. But he disclosed his age and was sent home. His parents had to wait until he was old enough and sent him to Yonge Street Elementary later changing to David T. Howard Elementary. When he was in seventh and eighth grade he attended the experimental Atlanta University Laboratory School. After eighth grade he attended Booker T. Washington High School, a segregated school. He was quite advanced and skipped ninth and twelfth grades easily. He was quarterback of the football team.
King entered Atlanta's Morehouse College at the age of fifteen in 1944. King enjoyed the social perks of college and found the atmosphere exciting and liberal as there was academic freedom and racial issues were discussed rationally. King studied sociology and considered studying either law or medicine. Though funny and stylish, he proved to be an unexceptional student. Intellectually incredulous of what he perceived as narrow-mindedness in the black southern Baptist church, he questioned the emotionalism and relevance of Church and Christianity. He wondered if they were capable of serving as an intellectually respectable and emotionally satisfying vehicle of modern thinking and improving the society. This conflict continued until King studied a course in Bible and discovered profound truth lying beneath the legends and myths. Two Ministers - Dr Mays, President of Morehouse College and Dr George Kesley, a professor of philosophy and religion played a vital role in inspiring and influencing him with modern thinking. With a restored faith in religion King joined the ministry in his senior year of college. His call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, but an inner urge and a great sense of responsibility to serve humanity.
By the time King entered Morehouse, his mind was already preoccupied with concerns and conflicts of racial and economic justice. His first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance was: American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” that deeply moved him with the theory of non violent resistance. King read the work several times as he was simply fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system and that moral obligation to not to cooperate with evil was equally important as the obligation to cooperate with good.
King wrote: “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. AS a result of his personal writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.”
King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania at the age of nineteen in 1948.
Morehouse College and Crozer marked the beginning of immense growth and early stages of the formation of King’s philosophical beliefs. During this phase he not only revisited his religious skepticism such as the effectiveness of the church, but also expanded his exploration to beliefs such as Sin; issues such as Social Justice; and ideologies such as Communism. Crozer ignited his serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil. His thinking was stimulated by the serious study of social and ethical theories of great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis left an indelible imprint on his thinking as it emphasized that the gospel deals with the whole man – not only his spiritual well being but also his material well being.
During his Christmas holidays of 1949, King read Karl Marx scrutinizing Das Capital and The Communist Manifesto and reading certain interpretive works of Marx and Lenin. He rejected communist theories of materialistic interpretation of history, ethical relativism, and political totalitarianism. However he appreciated the contribution of Communism in pointing to the weakness of traditional; growth of definite self- consciousness in the masses, and challenging the Christian churches.
Beginning of the Pilgrimage to nonviolence: Mahatma Gandhi
King was exposed to the concept of Pacifism at a lecture given by Dr. A. J. Muste. However he was far from convinced of the practicability of the pacifism in solving social problems. He believed that the only way we could solve our problems of segregation was an armed revolt. His faith in the power of love was temporarily shaken by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as he read The Will to Power and the parts of The Genealogy of Mortals.
“Nietzsche’s glorification of power“—”in his theory all life expressed the will to power--was an outgrowth of his contempt for ordinary morals. He attacked the whole of the Hebraic-Christian morality“—”with its virtues of piety and humility, its other worldliness and its attitude toward suffering“—”as the glorification of weakness, as making virtues out of necessity and impotence. He looked to the development of a superman who would surpass man as man surpassed the ape.”
– Martin Luther King
Stride Toward Freedom
One Sunday afternoon King heard a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University at Philadelphia who had just returned from a trip to India. He spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King felt so ignited electrified that he left the meeting and bought as many as six books on Gandhi’s life and works.
King became deeply fascinated by Gandhi’s campaigns of nonviolent resistance. He was particularly moved by the Salt March to the Sea and Gandhi’s numerous fasts. King found the the whole concept of “Satyagraha” profoundly significant. Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force. Thus “Satyagraha,” means truth-force or love force.
“As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationship. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic ofJesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau, the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
– Martin Luther King
Stride Toward Freedom
King vacillated between Rauschenbusch’s liberal view of man and Reinhold Niebuhr’s opposite view of human nature as he read Niebuhr’s critique of the pacifist position Moral Man and Immoral Society and explored Niebuhr’ assertion that man was selfish and sinful and social institutions were symbol of collective evil.
Niebuhr emphasized the volatility of relying on nonviolent resistance. It could only be successful, if the groups against whom the resistance was taking place had some degree of moral conscience, as was the case in Gandhi’s struggle against the British. Niebuhr’s ultimate rejection of pacifism was based primarily on the doctrine of man. He argued that pacifism failed to do justice to the reformation doctrine of justification by faith, substituting for it a sectarian perfectionism which believes “that divine grace actually lifts man out of the sinful contradictions of history and establishes him above the sins of the world.”
But as King continued to read, he realized the shortcomings of Niebuhr’s position. On the other hand his study of Gandhi convinced him that true pacifism is nonviolent resistance to evil and not nonresistance to evil.
Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”
Next stage of intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence: Boston University
King reached the next stage of his intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence during his doctoral studies at Boston University which he entered on September 13, 1951. Under the influence of Dean Walter Muelder and Professor Allen Knight Chalmers, Boston University School of Theology strongly supported pacifism and social justice and showed deep faith in the possibilities of human beings. King realized that in overemphasizing the corruption of human nature Niebuhr had completely overlooked the divine nature and cure of grace.
Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf greatly stimulated King’s thinking as he studied philosophy and theology under them and more specifically the Personalistic philosophy — the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. Personalism’s insistence that only personality - finite and infinite - is ultimately real reinforced King in two beliefs: it gave him a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality and it gave him metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God. The title of King’s dissertation was: “A comparison of the conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”
Just before Dr. Brightman’s death in 1953, King began studying the philosophy of Hegel with him which focused on a study of Hegel’s monumental work, Phenomenology of Mind with him. King also managed to read Hegel’s Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right in spare time. King strongly disagreed with Hegel’s absolute idealism and found it rationally unsound. But Hegel’s contention that ‘‘truth is the whole” stimulated his thinking and led him to a philosophical method of rational coherence. Hegel’s analysis of the dialectical process gave him insight into social justice and King learnt that growth comes through struggle.
King finished his formal training with all of these relative divergent intellectual forces converging into a positive social philosophy in 1954.
“One of the main tenets of this philosophy was the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice. At this time, however, I had merely an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, with no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation. When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.
– Martin Luther King
Stride Toward Freedom
Spring of Love illuminates King’s life
During his stay in Boston, King fell in love with Coretta Scott an Alabama-born Antioch College graduate who was then studying at the New England Conservatory of Music “whose gentle manner and air of repose did not disguise her lively spirit. I had met quite a few girls in Boston, but none that I was particularly fond of” expressed King. He wrote to her quite romantically: “ My life without you is a year without a spring time which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere saturated by dark cold breeze of winter…” On 18 June 1953 King and Coretta were married in Marion, Alabama by King Sr. who was initially unhappy with this relationship but finally accepted it. They began their married life together in Boston.
Although King considered pursuing career in teaching, he accepted an offer to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama with the highest salary offered to black ministerial in town. At first King was dubious about the position and the place but being the old capital of the Confederacy and a bastion of racism, Montgomery seemed a suitable testing ground to King who was a practitioner of a social gospel. Dexter was a well established church of educated intellectual middle-class blacks that had been supporting civil rights protest activity. He preached his first sermon as minister, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in May 1954.
NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)
King joined the local branch of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and came to terms with reality of racial problems especially the ones that involved legal matters. At the same time he got associated with Alabama Council on Human Relations – an interracial group concerned with human relations in Alabama and worked through educational methods to improve situations as opposed to NAACP’s legal approach. King was even elected vice president of this Council. His involvement in both the groups was considered to be inconsistent. Nevertheless King felt that both the approaches were necessary. While education can bring about change in attitude and internal feelings like hatred and prejudice; legislation and court order can help regulate behavior. “Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey longer.”, King believed.
At the end of 1955 God blessed Coretta and King with a baby girl, Yolanda Denise, whom King fondly called “Yoki”
Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Massive Non Cooperation
Rosa Parks created history on December 1, 1955. Park, a black active member of the local chapter of the (NAACP) who worked as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store broke the segregation law by refusing to give up her seat on a full Montgomery bus. Her unplanned act of defiance that was her courageous and intrepid affirmation of her self- respect and dignity, caused a chain of events that included her arrest, trial, boycott of buses by black community, a protest and concluded with Supreme Court decision prohibiting bus segregation and also King's rise to the stature of a leader of national prominence.
Park was arrested on Thursday December 5, NAACP and the Women's Political Council planned a boycott for the following Monday. They met in the basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which King had offered as a meeting place. The group headed by community leaders Ralph Abernathy, E.D. Nixon, Rev. E.N. French, Roy Bennett drafted three demands for the bus company: seating be available on a strictly first-come, first-served basis; drivers conduct themselves with greater civility to black passengers; black drivers be hired for predominately black routes. In the backdrop of their recent victory in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the NAACP lawyers took on her court case with the hope that they could ride the issue to the. Park was tried, was proved guilty and was fined $14.
Nearly 20,000 blacks supported the bus boycott. While black community extended an unexpected and strong support to the massive non cooperation; the bus company remained relentlessness. Hence Community leaders planned an extended protest. The group named itself MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) and unanimously elected twenty six year old King its president.
“ That night we were starting a movement that would gain national recognition; whose echoes would ring in the ears of people of every nation; a movement that would astound the oppressor , and bring new hope to the oppressed. That night was Montgomery’s moment in history.”
Martin Luther King
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King
On December 17, 1955 King along with other MIA leaders met with white representatives in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve bus dispute.
To survive the boycott that King termed as massive non cooperation, the black community formed a network of taxi services and carpools driven by NAACP volunteers compensated by MIA. This badly hit the businesses of the bus company that lost almost 65% of its income. In an attempt to end the massive cooperation on one hand the city sued MIA for running an illegal transit system on October 30, 1956, on the other hand bombing black churches and private homes continued as the whites protested to blacks’ protest.
Inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence on King. Following Gandhi’s non – violence, non cooperation and civil disobedience methods King emphasized the protest's rootedness in the power of love and Christian principles "turn the other cheek" in the teeth of violence. Even if they fall a victim to violence they would not engage in any act of violence themselves. King advocated Gandhi’s methods:
“ ... Christ furnished the spirit of motivation while Gandhi furnished the method”
Martin Luther King
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King
In the massive non cooperation that lasted a year King followed non violence religiously. Throughout the most demanding, violent events of the long-lasting boycott that changed both King's life and the life of Montgomery King emerged as the most promising guiding force for the community with an amazing poise and maturity that’s rare in someone who is just twenty seven. King became the target and object of hatred. The troubled times often perturbed him as he went through Police harassment and arrest under false pretenses, getting sued for various reasons, threatening phone calls that even realized in a bomb exploding in his house. At times he even broke down emotionally but overcame the difficult moments with a newer courage and strengthened conviction. He felt God’s presence and heard Him telling him to stand up for righteousness, justice and truth. And he wrote:
“Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is through love. I believe firmly that love is a transforming power that can lift a whole community to new horizons of fair play, good will, and justice.”
Martin Luther King
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King
Victory of Truth
On December 17 1956 rejecting city’s appeal Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rosa Parks and desegregation making bus segregation illegal.
This ended the noncooperation in Montgomery. On 21 December 1956, exactly after 382 days Montgomery’s blacks could sit anywhere in the bus. King joined Ralph Abernathy, Nixon, Parks and Smiley for a ride on the first desegregated bus. Initially City reacted with hostility that increased violence and misbehavior: more bombs were planted, more stones were thrown, more bullets were shot, and more abuses were hurled. But many whites responded calmly and the resentment subsided gradually.
“Ultimately, victory in Montgomery came with the United States Supreme Court’s decision; however, in the real sense, the victory had already come to the boycotters, who had proven to themselves, the community, and the world that Negroes could join in concert and sustain collective action against segregation, carrying it through until the desired objective was reached. In conclusion, then, Montgomery gave forth, for all the world to see, a courageous new Negro. He emerged, etched in sharpest relief, a person whom whites had to confront and even grudgingly respect, and one whom Negroes admired and, then, emulated. He had thrust off his stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, and emerged with a new sense of dignity and destiny. The Montgomery Negro had acquired a new sense of somebodiness and self-respect, and had a new determination to achieve freedom and human dignity no matter what the cost.”
Martin Luther King
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King
This encouraged King who was a national figure now for taking a giant step as he set out to expand the success of nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Bayard Rustin, an activist with communist sympathies , Stanley Levison, a white Jewish radical of communist affiliations, and Ella Barker a black social activist who was associated with the NAACP in the 40s, played a vital role in helping King organize events and write speeches, books, and letters. It was Bayard’s encouragement that King called a get together of the NAACP leaders in Atlanta, Georgia in January 1957 to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that comprised churches and clergies from across the South. Since the aim was to coordinate protests, SCLC elected King its president as he personified the position and intellectual spirit of the mission.
In February of 1957 Rustin and Levison drafted a message that the SCLC sent to the President of Federal Government Dwight D. Eisenhower requesting that the White House hold a conference on civil rights. Although Eisenhower ignored it just as he had ignored the earlier request SCLC had made him to come to South and support Supreme Court’s decision on integration. This however, caught the attention of the mass media with Time magazine featuring King on its cover page. King also received an invitation to celebrations of the independence of Ghana from British colonial rule which he accepted.
On the 17th of May civil rights advocates celebrated the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s momentous verdict of desegregation by leading a Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington DC. Thousands of blacks and even whites gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. The objectives of this pilgrimage were to arouse the conscience of the nation in favor of racial justice, to demonstrate the unity of blacks in the struggle for freedom, the violence and terror which blacks suffered in the southland at that time, and to appeal to Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill.
King addressed a rally of almost forty thousand people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and once again became a national spotlight.
King had a great quality and ability to establish and integrate support from various organizations as he thought “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality”. While National Baptist Convention provided support to King from churches all over the nation, his advisor, Stanley Levison insured support from Jewish groups. Peace activist Homer Jack and associates, labor unions like United Auto Workers and United Packinghouse Workers , southern Reform organizations such as Anne Braden’s Southern Conference Education Fund and Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School supported King and contributed to the MIA activities.
King also formed alliances with groups fighting oppression outside the U.S.. King joined the American Committee on Africa after he attended Ghana’s independence ceremony in March 1957 at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah. He served as vice chairman of an International Sponsoring Committee for a day of protest against apartheid government of South Africa. Articulating the connections between the African-American freedom struggle and those abroad, King honored Kenyan labor leader Tom Mboya in an SCLC event.
Crusade for Citizenship
During the summer in 1957 SCLC launched "Crusade for Citizenship” a new Southwide educational and action campaign to help register two million black voters in time to exercise their right to vote in the 1960 presidential election. Unfortunately the campaign failed and indicated that SCLC required more cooperation with other black civil rights groups to be successful in such campaigns.
Birth of Martin Luther King III
King and Coretta’s second child, Martin Luther King III was born on 23 October, 1957. The next year marked publication of Stride toward Freedom (1958), an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book received a good response.
On September 20, at a book-signing in Harlem, a forty two year old schizophrenic black woman Izola Ware Curry stabbed King with a letter opener that slid between his heart and one of his lungs severely close to artery. Surgeon could remove the letter opener positioned between the heart and lung after a critical surgery that took four hours.
During the recuperation period King reflected about the enormity of the responsibility of his leadership position, and concern about making mistakes.
Soon after his recovery King took one month trip to India in February 1959 accompanied by Coretta and MIA historian Lawrence D. Reddick . King got better insights into Gandhian thought and non-violent tactics at the Gandhi Peace Foundation. King met Gandhi’s disciples including Jayprakash Narian, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and many other Indian leaders. King asserted:
“I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”
“I have just returned to the country from a memorable [strikeout illegible] visit to India. Although I had a most rewarding experience in that great country, there were those depressing moments. For how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks, and discovers that millions go to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of 400 million people, more than 300 million make an annual income of less than $70 per year, and most of them have never seen a doctor or dentist? All of this has resulted from the centuries of exploitation and oppression inflicted upon the India people by foreign powers.
As I observed these conditions I found myself asking: “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? The answer is an emphatic no, because the destiny of America is tied up with the destiny of India. As long as India, or any other nation, is insecure we can never be totally secure. We must use our vast resources of wealth to aid the undeveloped nations of the world. To often have we used our wealth to establish military bases, while neglecting the need of establishing bases of genuine concern and understanding.
All of this amounts to saying that in the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.
As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I posses a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the maine.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Martin Luther King in "Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution," 2 June 1959
After his return from India, King committed himself more fully to the SCLC. Towards the end of 1959 he left Dexter church in Montgomery to move back to Atlanta - the SCLC headquarters. He resumed his position of assistant pastor under King Sr. at Ebenezer Church to get relieved from the responsibilities of a full-time minister.
King focused on SCLC and formulated a plan to work with NAACP on voter
registration. King also extended his support to the student lunch corner sit-ins to protest segregated public facilities in Greensboro, North Carolina which had spread to scores of Southern cities. SCLC got directly involved in April and Ella Baker helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. A year later, King participated in sit-ins in an Atlanta department store which resulted in his arrest. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy helped him leave the Atlanta jail early. While King remained nonpartisan he thanked JFK in a press statement as he believed that it took moral courage to do so.
JFK’s support to King made many blacks develop a feeling that if King and Kennedy supported each other, he was not truly a representative of blacks. King began facing criticism for his strict adherence to principles of non-violence and absolute pacifism. He even faced allegations by the protestors who claimed that he compromised with whites and took the credit which others were deprived of despite their sacrifice and that JFK’s early support of the Civil Rights movement had extended a little beyond the federal aid in the teeth of violence. However, when Kennedy became president King was disappointed that his support for the Civil Rights movement failed to reflect the promises that he had made as a candidate.
Unaware of politics, movements, racial issues, criticism and allegation hurled at his father, King’s third child Dexter came into the world on January 30, 1961. Meanwhile, King’s obligation to kids and loyalty to Coretta also started declining and his extra marital affairs became a concern among the leadership.
The Albany Movement
To desegregate bus stations and lunch counters by using them, CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) organized the Freedom Rides campaign of bus trips to south in 1961. King’s role remained limited to training participants in nonviolence, and representing them to the Kennedy Administration.
Riders were met by violence but the Attorney General gave official federal support to the Freedom Rides and ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to ban segregation in interstate travel.
in late 1961, King stepped in to a protest already in progress in Albany, Georgia. With the Albany Movement SNCC pursued voter-registration and the direct action campaign in the heavily segregated city. King, Ralph Abernathy and Anderson led a march of 250 protestors to City Hall. Albany Police Chief Laurie Prichett arrested all the protestors but treated them considerately. City authorities made various promises such as desegregating bus and rail terminals.
King and Abernathy were tried for parading without a permit and sentenced to jail terms in July that revived the interest of the media. When King and Abernathy chose to serve the term instead of paying the $178 fine the local authorities sensed their publicity and preferred paying the fine for them to kick both them out of jail.
Violence broke out in Albany as two thousand frustrated young protestors who had been fighting nonviolently for month lost their patience and threw rocks and bottles at police. Utterly disappointed, King tried to curb violence and held a prayer vigil against it and was once again arrested. The City obtained a federal injunction which banned protests. Between the police chief's gentle methods, the City's refusal to jail King, and pressure from Robert Kennedy, who encouraged King to continue to abide by federal laws, there seemed slim chance for victory in Albany. King left the city in August, having learned what not to do. In his next campaign, in Birmingham, Alabama, he would avoid these mistakes.
As early at May 1962 Birmingham minister and SCLC member Fred Shuttlesworth had suggested that the SCLC ally with his own organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to protest conditions in Birmingham.
Birmingham was the wealthiest city in Alabama, and a bastion of segregation. 40% of population was constituted by black and yet only 10000 voters out of 80000 registered voters were black.
The mayor was a segregationist and the police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Conner was known for his hostile and sometimes violent treatment of blacks. The Governor of the state was George Wallace, who had won office with promises of "segregation forever." No wonder Birmingham was battered by racial hatred and violence. Seventeen black churches and homes had been bombed between 1957 and 1962 that included the home of Shuttlesworth an active civil rights campaigner. King took time to adopt Shuttlesworth's suggestion and by March 1963 King, Ralph Abernathy and a few other SCLC organizers began recruiting volunteers for protest rallies and giving workshops in nonviolent techniques.
Lunch-counter sit-ins on April 3 marked the beginning campaign. Forty-two protestors marched on City Hall and got themselves arrested on April 6. Demonstrations intensified and the jails filled with peaceful blacks. King convinced a few white business owners whose store businesses were badly affected due to the protests to desegregate their facilities and hire blacks. City officials on the other hand obtained an injunction from a state court on 10 April prohibiting the demonstrations. Since it was at odds with federal laws King violated it. Two days later on Good Friday King organized a march which led to the immediate arrest of the protestors. Police decided to place King and Abernathy in separate solitary confinements denying them their rightful phone calls to the outside world.
Deeply concerned by the silence from her husband, Coretta called the White House. Robert Kennedy returned her call and then the President himself called her. Kennedy Administration’s intervention and involvement of FBI agents not only compelled Birmingham Police to give more hospitable treatment to King but also gave momentum to the movement.
During his eight day term in jail King composed his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" addressing national audience in response to a letter in a local newspaper that termed the protests as "unwise and untimely". Marked with a persuasive, passionate and yet a composed tone the letter impressed readers with allusions to the Bible and various secular thinkers and articulated the strong voice of a massive movement.
After King was released, the nature of protests became more aggressive and confrontational. Jim Bevel, SCLC member recommended a potentially powerful strategy: recruits of younger protestors who were the hope of future. Organizers trained youth in nonviolent tactics. King addressed a young crowd at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on May 2nd.
The reason I can't follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion. I remember some years ago, my brother and I were driving from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee. And for some reason the drivers that night were very discourteous or they were forgetting to dim their lights...And finally A.D. looked over at me and he said, 'I'm tired of this now, and the next car that comes by here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to refuse to dim mine.' I said, 'Wait a minute, don't do that. Somebody has to have some sense on this highway.' And I'm saying the same thing for us here in Birmingham. We are moving up a mighty highway toward the city of Freedom. There will be meandering points. There will be curves and difficult moments, and we will be tempted to retaliate with the same kind of force that the opposition will use. But I'm going to say to you, 'Wait a minute, Birmingham. Somebody's got to have some sense in Birmingham.'
King’s speech at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 5 May 1963
Nearly a thousand youths marched downtown, singing "We Shall Overcome”. When they got arrested more youngsters stocked up the next day and another protesting march was organized. The situation perplexed Bull Conner as the jails were full. Desperate, he ordered his forces to blast the young protestors with fire-hoses and released attack dogs. This cold blooded violence that was aired on national television shocked the viewers and pricked the nation’s conscience that marked a turning point as it earned Civil Rights Movement sympathy and support. White House was flooded with Telegrams expressing outrage and outcry, and the protests became so massive and volatile that the Kennedy Administration was forced to confront civil rights issues more directly. The callousness of officials and Alabama governor George C. Wallace’s denial of black students at the University of Alabama pushed JFK to introduce major civil rights legislation.
SCLC was in a position to put forth its demands to The City:
Set a schedule for the desegregation of lunch counters and other facilities
Deal with the issue of inequality in hiring practices
Grant amnesty to arrested demonstrators
Create a bi-racial committee for the reconciliation of differences
The city reacted with more violence and whites bombed black homes and churches. Blacks retaliated with mob violence. King patrolled the city imploring blacks to answer violence with non violence and peace.
Success of Birmingham campaign not only caused changes in local policies whose long-term effects were nationwide it also established King as a civil rights leader. When protests spread in Southern cities, President Kennedy despite being preoccupied by the Cold War, felt the pressing need of the hour. Kennedy sounded his obligation to federal civil rights legislation on 11 June that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. Mandating Birmingham’s local victory federally the act empowered federal government to enforce desegregation and equal employment opportunities.
“I have a dream”: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
A massive march by 250000 protesters with a majority of blacks was organized from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on 28 August 1963. The rally was planned and organized by King, Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, CORE leader James Farmer, NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, SNCC leader John Lewis, and Dorothy Height, leader of National Council of Negro Women. The plan initially upset, which would result, and thus Consequently, Feared the riots that could endanger the civil rights legislation that had been set forth before Congress, the Kennedy Administration got involved in the planning and invited white organizations to participate and edited speakers’ speech, to prevent the outbreak of violence. Some militant blacks considered the march as a fake event because of the white involvement and dismissed it. King and other civil rights leaders addressed the March which was called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." King was the last speaker to address the marchers, and he delivered the most famous speech of his career. Impassioned, rhythmic, and clear, King described his hopes for the future:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children one day will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountains of despair the stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing we will be free one day.
King’s speech articulated hopes and wishes of Civil Rights Movement that often seemed chaotic. The speech that was broadcast on national television touched the hearts of millions of Americans, and was also heard by their President who watched it from the White House.
While the march successfully contributed in preparing the atmosphere for passing federal civil rights legislation, murders throughout the South turned the joy of victories into solemnity. King’s friend and NAACP member Medgar Evers was shot dead at his home’s door in Mississippi on 12 May. Four little black girls lost their life in a bomb explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on 15 September. King paid tribute to the little girls:
“They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murders”
John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd.
Time magazine featured King as "Man of the Year” in January 1964 issue. King spoke in Germany, met with the Pope and campaigned for Johnson's re-election, against Johnson's very conservative Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater during the summer. Johnson invited King to the White House in July where he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
Protestors suffered the violence of the Ku Klux Klan in St. Augustine, Florida during the early summer as the attempted to integrate the town. Four people died in bombings. Klan was organizing mobs to attack civil rights workers when they tried to enter segregated sites. King arrived in St. Augustine and was arrested with along with Abernathy and others for attempting to eat at a whites-only restaurant.
“World peace through non-violent means is neither absurd nor unattainable. All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew. Non-violence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1964
When Yale University offered King an honorary degree he left jail early. King’s absence resulted into an injunction banning the protest marches, and the refusal of federal government to intervene and SCLC's campaign in St. Augustine failed radically.
SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP organized voter registration campaign in Mississippi in summers to push to register as many blacks as possible.
The campaign was tainted by the murder of three civil rights workers under suspicious circumstances that involved the police. King organized a protest march to express disapproval of the hostility and violence, the local police released tear gas and rifle butts to disperse the crowd.
The Nobel Committee honored King at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway with the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964 on December 10. King announced to give $54,000 of the prize money to Civil Rights Movement to whom he owed the Prize as he delivered his Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony:
The Nobel Laureate was put behind the bars in Selma in the southern United States by early 1965.
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