Recalling the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Published
  • By W. Keith Alexander
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Historian Office
Although the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, African Americans were denied their basic citizenship rights for nearly 100 years. From the late 1880s to the mid-1960s, Jim Crow Laws reigned supreme throughout the United States, especially in the South. White Americans used these laws to disenfranchise Black citizens, segregate the society and to discriminate openly against African Americans. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement overcame these laws and ended these practices. At the forefront of this movement was Martin Luther King Jr., Ph.D.

January 15, 1929 the Rev. and Mrs. Michael King Sr. celebrated the birth of their son, whom they named Michael King Jr. Young Michael grew up in Atlanta, where his father served as the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. When Doctor King was a young man, his family took a trip to Germany, where his father studied Martin Luther, a famous 16th century clergyman considered the father of modern day Protestantism. Inspired by Martin Luther's life, the Rev. King changed their names to Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. 

As a young man, Doctor King attended Booker T. Washington High School. An excellent student, he skipped two high school grades, entering Morehouse College at the age of 15. In 1948, Morehouse College awarded the 19-year-old his Bachelor of Arts degree. Next, attended Crozer Theological Seminary, in Chester, Penn. Three years later, he received his Bachelor of Divinity. Then, he applied for and was accepted into Boston University. While attending Boston University, he courted Coretta Scott, who he married June 18, 1953. Two years later, he attained his Doctorate of Philosophy from Boston University.

At the age of 25, Doctor King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was located in Montgomery, Ala., the original capital of the Southern confederacy. Throughout the South, Jim Crow Laws were enforced through intimidation and violence. These laws, which were based on a Supreme Court ruling, allowed the states to separate the races and discriminate against African Americans. In 1883, the United States Supreme Court heard five separate arguments dealing with discrimination at privately owned businesses and public sites such as railroads, a theater in San Francisco, and the Grand Opera House in New York City.

Dec. 1, 1955, Montgomery police arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give her seat to a White man. In protest of Miss Parks' arrest, Edgar Nixon, Clifford Durr and Doctor King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Oftentimes, Doctor King and his followers were arrested by the Montgomery police. In fact, white supremacists attacked Doctor King's house throwing a fire bomb through a window one night. Eventually, United States District Court ruling, Browder vs. Gayle, ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Doctor King helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Doctor King dedicated this organization to fighting for civil rights. This organization was composed of members from 60 different Black churches in the South. Doctor King's SCLC spawned other civil rights organizations such as James Farmer's, Ph.D., Congress of Racial Equality. Along with Roy Wilkins from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Whitney Young Jr. from the National Urban League, Doctor King and Doctor Farmer were the four prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s.

From 1957 to 1968, Doctor King led the SCLC's fight to gain civil rights for African Americans. The SCLC launched their first campaigns in Albany, Ga., and Birmingham, Ala. In Albany, Doctor King's group received national attention when he was arrested there in Dec 1961. Doctor King returned to Albany in July 1962, which resulted in another arrest. At that time, a judge sentenced Doctor King to either serve 45 days in jail or pay a $178 fine. To raise the American people's awareness of what was happening in Albany, Doctor King chose to sit in jail, which embarrassed the Albany police chief. In order to avoid more embarrassment, the Albany police chief paid Doctor King's fine and set him free after three days in jail. Meanwhile in Birmingham, Ala., Doctor King and the SCLC conducted sit-ins and peaceful marches. During these protests, Birmingham police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered his officers to use powerful water hoses and dogs against the protestors, which included children. Across the country, many White Americans were horrified to see police using such violent means against innocent people. The SCLC's efforts brought an end to Jim Crow Laws in Birmingham.

After Birmingham, Doctor King participated in the 1963 March on Washington. With the help of the NAACP, NU, and CORE, Doctor King's SCLC organized t he march. The purpose of the march was to raise awareness concerning civil rights legislation, laws preventing discrimination in employment, the federal government's failure to protect civil rights workers from police brutality and the establishment of a $2 minimum wage for all workers. Before the march, Doctor King met with President John F. Kennedy, who asked him to change the theme of the march. Although he incurred criticism for acquiescing to the president's request, the march was successful. Nearly a 250,000 people of different ethnicities attended the march. These were the people who were electrified by Doctor King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

In 1964 Doctor King and the SCLC targeted white segregationists in St. Augustine, Fla., and Selma, Ala. Each night, civil rights marchers were assaulted by White segregationists. The St. Augustine police arrested and jailed hundreds of marchers. Meanwhile, a Selma judge issued a court injunction barring the assembly of three or more people in association with the SCLC, or any other civil rights organizations in Dec. 1964. Doctor King defied the judge's injunction when he spoke to hundreds of people Jan. 2, 1965. After the talk, Doctor King started arranging for a march from Selma to Montgomery. March 7, 1965 a horrified nation watched as hundreds of protestors were attacked by police and white supremacists. This day became known as Bloody Sunday. Following Bloody Sunday, Doctor King planned another march for March9; however, a judge issued an order blocking this march. Despite the judge's order, a defiant Doctor King conducted a peaceful march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they held a prayer before disbursing the crowd. March 25, Doctor King and SCLC conducted a lawful march with the court's blessing. At this meeting, Doctor King delivered his famous "How Long, Not Long" speech.

Following their successes in the South, Doctor King's SCLC decided to take their protests to the North. In 1966, along with Ralph Abernathy, Doctor King moved into Chicago's North Lawndale slums. There, he exposed real estate practices steering black people toward poor neighborhoods. During these marches, protestors hurled bottles at the marchers. Later, Ralph Abernathy described these situations as "a worse reception than they had in the South." Fearing a mass riot, Doctor King called off several marches in order to avoid violence.

During this period of Doctor King's life, he voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War and began his "Poor People's Campaign." As part of his "Poor People's Campaign," Doctor King wanted to include people from different races in the group's leadership. Under Doctor King's leadership, the SCLC asked the government to rebuild America's cities by investing money. He argued that Congress had overlooked the poor in the past. Doctor King believed that America's social system needed overhauling in order to provide the poor with better living conditions.

Unfortunately, Doctor King never saw the fulfillment of his dreams for America. While staying at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., Doctor King was assassinated at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968. An hour later, Doctor King was pronounced dead at Saint Joseph's Hospital.

During his lifetime, Doctor King earned many awards including the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to promote civil rights, the American Liberties Medallion for his work promoting human liberty, the Margaret Sanger Award for promoting social justice and human dignity and he was posthumously given the Marcus Garvey Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. November 2, 1983, President Ronald W. Reagan signed a bill, which established a federal holiday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This holiday was observed for the first time Jan. 20, 1986. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush set aside the third Monday in January as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On 17 January 2000, the federal holiday was observed for the first time in all 50 states.