Martin Luther King Jr.’s name is synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America. As the most prominent figure of the moment, understanding his life goal and mission are crucial to understanding what fueled the movement itself. In order to understand that, it is important to look at the cultural context that King was born into. This sheds light on how and how his background was important in order to prepare him as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. was not born with that name, but was born January 15, 1929 with the name Michael King. His father then changed his name as a nod to the famous German reformer of the Church, Martin Luther. It seems the change was appropriate given that King would later go on to become such a prominent reformer of American politics (Adams, 106). His grandfather began in a profession that his father, and he would take up—pastors of a church in Atlanta called Ebenezer Baptist Church. While his father was still alive King acted as a co-pastor of the church. This early formative experience gave King leadership experience from an early age, a skill that he would continue to use throughout his career as an activist (NobelPrize.org, 1).
He had a sharp intellect and graduated from high school at the age of 15. From there he B.A. degree at the Morehouse College in Atlanta, where both his father and grandfather had graduated. Then he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He also received a B.D. in 1951 from the same institution and won a fellowship there. Finally, he received his doctorate from Boston University in 1955 (NobelPrize.org, 1).
1955 was also the year that he began his work as an activist. King became an activist for civil rights in 1955 when he led a bus boycott in Montgomery because of their discriminating policies towards blacks. This was the same boycott where another now-famous civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, was booted to jail for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Through this he was elected to as the president of the MIA, the acronym for the Montgomery Improvement Association. During this boycott King used his skills as a preacher to promote his ideas on change through non-violent, but direct, action. (Adams, 107).
King first traveled to the continent where he race came from, Africa, in 1957. This was instrumental in taking the fight for equality back to the US. He was inspired by what he witnessed in Ghana. The country was struggling for independence. Ever since this trip he closely followed African affairs (Adams, 107). King believed racial segregation in America stemmed from “a contempt for life.” He believed that “We realize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Therefore we are as concerned about the problems in Africa as we are with the problems of the USA” (Adams, 107).
Another trip abroad would further fuel his fight. In 1959 he traveled to India and he returned, “even more committed to the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and determined [to] mount a full-scale assault on all forms of racial segregation” (Adams, 108).
After this trip he decided to move to Atlanta, which was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. King was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace price, at the age of thirty-five. The price money, valued at $55,000 to helping to further the Civil Rights Movement that he found himself leading.
Martin Luther King is most famous for his “I Have A Dream Speech” in which he lectured two-hundred and fifty thousand supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. The speech initially had the title the “March on Washington Speech,” but quickly it became known from its most memorable phrase, “I have a dream.” The march had taken so much planning, that the speech had not been written until twelve hours prior to the March on Washington.
On August 28 1963 marchers from the march came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. In the book “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” this speech was called the “defining moment of the entire Civil Rights Movement.
The speech contained an allusion to President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Lincoln, two generations before, was also an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement for his Emancipation Proclamation, which was the first step to making the United States a country where slavery in all of its forms was outlawed (Hansen, 177). The speech also contained allusions to the US constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
King in his speech said that he was not advocating “gradualism” but saw the time as now to end the racial segregation of the country. Time columnist Jon Meacham said of his speech, “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America” (Meacham, 26). King tells his listeners that 100 years after the signing of the declaration of independence, the Negro is still not free and that he “finds himself an exile in his own land” (King).
While this speech placed King as the undisputed “moral leader” of the US, it also placed a target on him. With any change there is always resisters to that change. As King inspired the country to live up to its moral obligations and respect the intrinsic rights of black people within the country as equals to white, there were many of the old guard who resisted these changes and saw King as an enemy to the country as they wanted it to be. This faction against him eventually led to King losing his life for the battle for equality that he fought for.
King was assassinated in on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 at the time of his death. A fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary was arrested and pleaded guilty to the crime; he was sentenced to 99 years in prison. (Adams, 108). Many, including King’s family and others believe that there was a conspiracy involving the US government that had killed King and used James Earl Ray as a scapegoat.
Thought King met a terrible end. He will be remembered for his advocacy for human rights. Many of the changes he dreamed of he saw carried out in his lifetime, and even more were met after his death.
Adams, Russell, Great Negroes Past and Present, pp. 106-108. Chicago, Afro-Am Publishing Co., 1963.
Adi, Hakim, and Marika Sherwood. Pan-African history: political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Hansen, D, D. (2003). The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation. New York, NY: Harper Collins. p. 177.
"Martin Luther King Jr.." - Biographical. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2014. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html>.
Meacham, Jon One Man Time. P. 26