It has been more than forty-five years since Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. But he is still considered one of the most respected African-American leaders in history. He played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement that finally ended the legal segregation of the Blacks and Whites in America and led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Dr Martin Luther King was born on January 5th, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia, the middle child of Alberta Williams King and Michael King Sr. He was a precocious child, skipping both his ninth and eleventh grade at Booker T. Washington High School before joining Morehouse College, Atlanta at the age of 15. At this stage in his life, he was deeply skeptical of religion and religious worship. In his junior year, a Bible class reaffirmed his faith, and he chose the ministry as his career. With a sociology degree from Morehouse, in 1948 he joined the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester. He finally went on to become the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 25 while still doing his doctorate. He married Coretta Scott an aspiring singer and musician and had four children.
On December 1, 1955, 42 year old Rosa Park was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. This incident was the turning point of the Civil Rights movement. Dr King, who was already a part of the movement, was elected to lead the boycott of the bus service system in Montgomery, Alabama. The 381 day boycott, entirely strategized by Dr King, was extremely successful and resulted in the Supreme Court ruling segregation on buses as unconstitutional. This ruling was a major victory for the Civil Rights Movement and made Dr Martin Luther King the face of the movement. With other ministers, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to harness the power of the black churches across the nation, and fight for civil reforms. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success of nonviolent activism in India, he urged the blacks to adopt nonviolent methods of protest. He said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth103526.html)
but he also believed “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth101472.html)organized what came to be known as the “sit in” protests at the racially segregated lunch counters at the city stores. In October 1960 with 75 students he initiated a peaceful “sit in” protest at the food counter of a city departmental store. He was arrested but subsequently released by the mayor of Atlanta, who feared repercussions and charges were dropped. But soon after, he was imprisoned again, for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. This incident caught the attention of John F. Kennedy, who mounted political pressure for Dr King’s release.
In 1963, he was declared Man of the year by Times magazine and in 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the youngest man to receive the honor.
Dr Martin Luther King was a man of peace, but he was constantly a target of violence. He was jailed more than twenty times; he was stabbed in the chest and his house was bombed. He faced personal persecution repeatedly till ultimately he was assassinated on the balcony of his motel in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. He did not live to see his dreams come true but even today his famous 1963 speech “I have a dream” is often referenced.
Malcolm X was another prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Born as Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, his philosophy was diametrically opposite to that of Dr Martin Luther King. He was the leader and spokesman for the Black Muslim Nation of Islam. He completely rejected nonviolence and believed that self defense against White oppression was the legitimate weapon for the Blacks. He wanted the Blacks to be independent of the Whites and advocated the establishment of a separate Black community. The direct actions of his philosophy resulted in visible results, and it became very popular. Once Malcolm X left the Muslim Nation of Islam organization he mellowed down and moved towards emphasizing unity and change through Black pride and respect for one another rather than hate and revenge.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and other prominent activists like them were largely responsible for creating the America we know today, a nation where all man is equal, where everyone has the right to live their lives with dignity.