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Martin Luther King Jr.


American civil rights leader

Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father and grandfather were both active in the Baptist ministry. King earned his own Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 and earned his Doctor of Philosophy from Boston University in 1955.

While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott. They were married in 1953. The next decade saw the birth of their four children.

In a period of soul-searching during his studies, King had, in his own words, "despaired of the power of love in solving social problems." At this point, he was coincidentally introduced to the life of Mohandas Gandhi in a sermon by Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, who had just returned from a trip to India. King was so moved that he immediately bought a number of books on the Indian nationalist leader.

During a trip to India in 1959, King met with followers of Gandhi. During these discussions he became more convinced than ever that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. "I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance," wrote King. "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… [I initially thought] the 'turn-the-other-cheek' philosophy and the 'love-your-enemies' philosophy were only valid 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."

King came to realize that Gandhi was the first person in history to re-invent the Christian ethic of love as "a potent instrument for social and collective transformation."

King's involvement in the civil rights movement began during his tenure as pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public city bus to a white passenger and consequently was arrested for violating the city's segregation law. King led a boycott of the city's buses. The boycott lasted for over a year and finally ended successfully in the desegregation of Montgomery's public bus system.

"The experience in Montgomery," King later explained, "did more to clarify my thinking in regard to the question of nonviolence than all the books I had read. Nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life."

The Montgomery victory brought King to national prominence as an eloquent and dynamic leader. During the height of the civil rights movement in the sixties, King had to test his doctrine of nonviolence often, as he was arrested thirty times for participating in demonstrations.

In 1963, he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail. In Birmingham, AL the goal was to completely end the system of segregation in every aspect of public life (stores, no separate bathrooms and drinking fountains, etc.) and in job discrimination. Also in 1963, King led a massive march on Washington, DC where he delivered his now famous "I Have A Dream" speech to an interracial crowd of over 250,000 people. King's tactics of active nonviolence (e.g. sit-ins, protest marches) had put civil rights squarely on the national agenda.

King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Selma, Alabama was a focal point for desegregation and voting rights campaigns. Before the Freedom Movement, all public facilities were strictly segregated. Blacks who attempted to eat at "white-only" lunch counters or sit in the downstairs "white" section of the movie theater were beaten and arrested. More than half of the city's residents were black, but almost all were prevented from being eligible to vote.

Many people worked to change things. On March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Highway 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state troopers and local sheriff's deputies attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma. On March 21, 1965, King led a march from Selma to Montgomery, AL to focus attention on black voter registration in Selma. More than 3,000 people began the march; by the time the marchers arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery, their ranks had swelled to 25,000. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson would sign into law the Voting Rights Bill.

On April 4, 1968, King was shot by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was only 39 years old at the time of his death. Dr. King was turning his attention to a nationwide campaign to help the poor at the time of his assassination. He had never wavered in his insistence that nonviolence must remain the central tactic of the civil rights movement, nor in his faith that everyone in America would some day attain equal justice.

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