To think and speak on behalf of others is noteworthy, to serve and act on behalf of others is heroic, but what do we call someone who gave his words, actions and life on behalf of others? Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the few people in history who have so profoundly changed the world in such a short time. His visions and actions for social unity, racial brotherhood, true peace and social welfare were not only carefully thought and weighed, but also acted upon with strategic finesse.
Born to a middle class family on January 15, 1929 in the segregated state of Georgia, Martin Luther King, Jr. would grow up to become an American philosopher, expert orator and strategic leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Martin excelled at school and entered Morehouse College at the age of fifteen and earned a B.A. in Sociology by the age of nineteen. In the next six years he would marry Coretta Scott, earn a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary, become a pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama and begin earning his Doctorate of Philosophy from Boston University. It was his education and travels to other countries that King claims opened his eyes to the world around him and exposed him to “the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.” It was the collective sins and structural evils that Martin Luther King, Jr. would dedicate his life to eradicating.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar….it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” – Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s first leadership role in the civil rights movement was as an executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he lead and organized the year long Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott would lead to the United States Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. His next major role would come as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This group distinguished itself from other civil rights organizations by using only nonviolent strategies to expose the evils of oppression while learning to see the common bonds between all. King stated it most simply when he said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
King also traveled to India to visit Gandhi’s birthplace and learn how the methods of nonviolent resistance could be used in the struggle for justice and human dignity in the United States. Over the next few years, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke over 2,500 times and led marches and nonviolent demonstrations for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor and other basic civil rights. Often the demonstrations against unjust laws were met with police and segregationist violence and force. In the face of high-pressured water jets and police dogs, massive arrests as well as bomb and death threats, Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to persuade those fighting for civil rights to remember that their goal was unity and peace.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1963, King would speak on behalf of the SCLC at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where demands were made for meaningful civil rights legislation, school desegregation and laws against racial discrimination in employment, protections from police brutality, a minimum wage and self-government for Washington D.C. It was at this march that King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the other civil rights organizations (notably the NAACP, National Urban League, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Congress of Racial Equality) led to the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For his efforts, King also became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Martin Luther King faced resistance to his efforts and at all levels, from local police, district judges, governors and even the President of the United States. He was arrested over 20 times, yet despite it all, he continued in his labor for change. In addition to the police violence and violence from segregationists, King also faced threats and violence from members of his own race that did not agree with his views of peace, unity and brotherhood. He was stabbed in the chest at a book signing and later stoned by a group of black nationalists who felt that the history of injustice made racial integration and racial unity impossible.
In an effort to learn more about the plights of the poor, Martin Luther King, Jr. moved into the poorest area of Chicago and switched his focus to a broad social uplift campaign known as “the poor people’s campaign.” King believed that in addition to the right to vote, the government would also need to invest in economic and social improvement for true equality to become a reality. King demanded economic aid to the poorest communities of all races in the United States in what would be called the Economic Bill of Rights.
Recognizing the immense sums of money being spent on war in Vietnam rather than those in need in the United States, King began to adamantly oppose the war and call for the end of federal funds being used on violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested that poverty was a major cause of the social problems in the U.S. and called for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” that would uplift those from all racial and ethnic groups.
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy. For no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” Martin Luther King Jr.
In the last days of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was supporting a garbage worker’s strike in Tennessee and planning a massive nonviolent civil disobedience demonstration to bring a broad ethnic and racial mix of the nation’s poor to set up camp at the national mall in Washington D.C. The goal of the demonstration was to make it unavoidable for the lawmakers at the Capitol to remain ignorant on the plight and needs of the poor. However, before the event could take place, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while exiting his hotel room. As a result, organization and rallies on behalf of the economic bill crumbled and it did not pass.
There is much controversy surrounding King’s death such as how and why it occurred. King had been under surveillance by the FBI for years including during the shooting, he was labeled as the “most dangerous negro”, and had faced dozens of FBI’s attempts to infiltrate and disrupt the movement and to discredit King. The suspected killer, James Earl Ray, was picked up by the FBI and coerced into pleading guilty to avoid going to trial or having evidence produced. Many had hoped for further investigations and clarity.
Despite the controversies over his tragic death, what should be remembered about Martin Luther King Jr. was his profound grasp on the social problems in the world around him and his commitment to use nonviolent tactics to bring about social change. He is a hero in every sense of the word. King committed his life improving the lives of all races and to creating true unity through racial reconciliation.
“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.” – King’s desire for his legacy.