Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy recalled
BY ROBERT BOOKER
On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his now famous "I have a dream" speech. It electrified the United States. He delivered it in measured tones to the 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and to countless others who watched on television.
Five short years after that speech, King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was in that city to lead the sanitation workers as they struggled for better pay and working conditions. He was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
He was born Michael Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15, 1929, to middle-class parents in Atlanta, Ga. His father changed their names to Martin when he was 5 years old. His grandfather, a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was a leader in the 1920s of a drive to defeat local bond issues until a black public high school was built.
King zipped through high school and entered Morehouse College at the age of 15 and graduated with a degree in sociology in 1948. He got his theological degree from Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., where he discovered the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, whose faith in nonviolent protest became King's guide in endeavors. In 1951, he was elected president of the senior class. He won a fellowship to do graduate work at any university of his choice.
He chose Boston University's School of Theology to study for his Ph.D. There he met and married Coretta Scott of Heiberger, Ala., who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. He graduated in 1954.
King burst on the scene as a civil rights leader during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., after seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. He had become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church shortly after his graduation, succeeding the Rev. Vernon Johns, who had a brilliant record of protest against racial segregation. He was just 28 years old when he made national headlines as the leader of the successful boycott.
King realized that it was just the beginning of the civil rights movement. Before leaving Montgomery to co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1959, he organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This organization proved to be effective in giving advice and support to various groups throughout the South in their efforts to bring about racial equality and justice.
Racial incidents demanded his attention in cities all over the country. While he was preaching nonviolence, 58 cities exploded in riots between 1964 and 1967. There were riots that left 141 people dead and 4,552 injured. An inestimable amount of property was destroyed. These upheavals were largely sparked by incidents between the police and blacks.
King was swamped with speaking engagements. As one of the century's greatest orators, he was in high demand. He spoke to black audiences, encouraging them to continue their struggles. His speeches to white audiences made them aware of the desire and the plight of black people. The audiences, in most cases, were not separate, but the message was not always universally understood.
Fortunately King had the courage of his conviction. A lesser man could not have stayed the course. During the bus boycott, a dynamite bomb was thrown on his front porch. In fact, his home was bombed three times. He was arrested 14 times during demonstrations. His character was attacked by racists and the FBI. He had to deal with other black leaders whose ideas of tactics ran counter to his own.
King began to speak out against the Vietnam War. Among other things, he said the war detracted from the civil rights movement and interfered with President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. He threatened to lead a national boycott in protest of the war. He called for the United States to guarantee a minimum of $4,000 annual income for every family.
For some in the government and outside of it, King had gotten too big for his britches. They began making plans to cut him down to size. An early effort to label him a communist because he had attend the Highlander Folk School while a known communist was in attendance failed.
On the instructions of its director, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI bugged King's motel rooms and taped some of his marital infidelities to blackmail him. While these tactics were unpleasant and difficult to deal with, King knew he had a more important mission to tackle than to yield to his personal problems.
In 1963, he faced down the infamous "Bull" Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham, and was arrested with countless others. He wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on scraps of paper that were smuggled out of this cell. In part it said, "If slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."
Because of his activities to expose the evils of racial segregation, President John F. Kennedy took note of the police dogs and fire hoses that were let loose on the demonstrators. He and the world witnessed the beatings they took at the hands of policemen.
On Jan. 3, 1964, Time Magazine carried King on its cover as Man of the Year for 1963. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. He was the youngest person ever to receive the award and the second black. Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, the undersecretary of the United Nations, was the first in 1950 for his work in negotiating a ceasefire in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For the next five years, King led important marches and helped influence civil rights legislation. He had already witnessed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created a commission to investigate the depriving of a citizen's right to vote, and the Act of 1960, which provided criminal penalties for people crossing state lines to avoid legal process after burning or attempting to burn a vehicle or building.
He helped to shepherd to passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in the use of public accommodations whose operations involve interstate commerce.
His influence led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which struck down restrictions to voting such as a literary and knowledge test and poll tax.
On his initial trip to Memphis to meet with the sanitation workers in that city, he stayed at the Rivermont, a Holiday Inn that charged $29 a night for a suite.
Since newspapers criticized this "prophet of the poor" for living so lavishly, on his return trip he stayed at the $13-a-night black-owned Lorraine Motel.
He was on the balcony of that motel in front of room 306 when James Earl Ray, the white supremacist, gunned him down. In 1986, it became a federal holiday to honor King on the third Monday in January.
In 1999, New Hampshire became the last state to officially recognize the holiday.
Published in Knoxville News Sentinel on Jan. 10, 2006
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