This article is just one in a series celebrating Black individuals, groups & events throughout the month of February in honour of Black History Month. While there are numerous Black leaders & activists that have made real change, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is undoubtably one of the most significant.
Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia. Growing up, King attended segregated public schools until the age of 15 when he was admitted to Morehouse College, where he studied both medicine and law. Even while studying at his father’s alma mater, King had no intention of following his father’s footsteps and joining the ministry. It wasn’t until he began his mentorship under Morehouse’s president at the time, Dr. Benjamin Mays, that he began thinking differently. Dr. Mays is well-known for his influential work in theology, and his outspoken nature surrounding racial equality.
After graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvia, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Divinity, was awarded a fellowship, and was even elected the president of his predominantly white class. After this, MLK enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University, which he completed in 1953, and then earned a doctorate in systemic theology 2 years later. It was in Boston that MLK met Coretta Scott a young singer from Alabama who was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. The two quickly fell in love, getting married in that year and settling in Montgomery, Alabama. This is where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Over time, the couple had 4 children, Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice Albertine King.
Montgomery Bus Boycott & Southern Christian Leadership Conference
The King family hadn’t been living in Montgomery for a year when the extremely segregated city became a hotspot for civil rights struggles in the United States, only made worse by the infamous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, when she was arrested. This motivated activists to coordinate a bus boycott under the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and chose MLK as the protest’s leader and official spokesperson, bringing him to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
The boycott ended up lasting for 381 days, and placed a significant economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners. The 13-month boycott ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. The bus boycott was a significant moment in history, as it demonstrated the potential for non-violent mass protests to challenge racial segregation, and was a model example for other southern campaigns in the months and years to come. As well, by the time the Supreme Court ruling was made, MLK had already entered the national spotlight as an inspirational leader and advocate for organized, non-violent resistance.
While King promoted non-violence, he had quickly become a target for violence by white supremacists. This started with the firebombing of his family home in January 1956. Another incident occurred in September 1958, when Izola Ware Curry walked into a department store in Harlem, where King was signing books. She asked, “Are you Martin Luther King?” and when he responded yes, she stabbed him in the chest with a knife. MLK survived the attempted assassination, and didn’t deter him from his role as a leader, but instead reinforced his dedication to non-violence, stating “The experience of these last few days has deepened my faith in the relevance of the spirit of nonviolence, if necessary social change is peacefully to take place.”
After the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in 1957, MLK and other civil rights activists – mostly fellow ministers – founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group committed to the achievement of full equality through non-violent protest. The SCLC motto “Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed” was established, and in his role as resident, MLK travelled across the country and the globe – giving lectures on nonviolence and civil rights, in addition to meeting with various religious figures, activists, and political leaders. During a month-long trip to India in 1959, he was given the opportunity to meet family members and followers of Gandhi, the man who MLK described in his autobiography as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” As well, during this time, King authored several books and articles. Over his lifespan, King remained at the helm of the organization.
The Birmingham Campaign & Jail Time
In 1960, MLK and his family moved back to his native city of Atlanta, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. This new position did not impede King or the SCLC from continuing to fight (non-violently) for civil rights. In April 1963, MLK and the SCLC joined with Birmingham’s existing local movement, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), in a campaign attacking the city’s segregation system by putting pressure on the area’s business owners during the 2nd busiest shopping season of the year – Easter. On April 3, 1963 the desegregation campaign began, with a series of mass gatherings, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants. Throughout, King spoke to citizens about the philosophy of non-violence and its methods – extending appeals for volunteers at the conclusion of each mass gathering. As the number of volunteers increased, actions soon expanded to kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the public library, and a march on the county building for voter registration. Over this period, hundreds of individuals were arrested.
On April 10, the local government filed for a state circuit court injunction against the protests, and after heavy debate, the campaign leaders decided to disobey this order. As such, King declared, “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process.” Their plans to keep submitting to arrest were soon threatened as the money available for cash bonds depleted, resulting in leadership being unable to guarantee those arrested would be released. MLK then contemplated whether he should be arrested, but given the lack of bail funds, his colleagues believed his fundraising services were crucial to the movement. Ultimately, he was too worried that his failure to submit to arrest might undermine his credibility, and concluded that he must risk going to jail in Birmingham. To his colleagues he said, “I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from. But I have to make a faith act.”
On Good Friday, April 12, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham after violating the anti-protest injunction, and was kept in solitary confinement. During his imprisonment, MLK penned the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of a copy of the Birmingham News, after reading an article in said paper written by 8 clergymen – condemning the protests. While in prison, King requested to call his wife, Coretta Scott King, who was at home in Atlanta, recovering from childbirth, and was denied. Mrs. King quickly communicated her concerns to the Kennedy administration, and soon after, Birmingham officials permitted King to call home. On April 20, 1963, bail money was made available, and King was released. In an attempt to sustain the campaign, SCLC organizer James Bevel proposed the use of youth in their demonstrations – his rationale being that young people represented “an untapped source of freedom fighters without the prohibitive responsibilities of older activists.”
On May 2, over 1,000 Black students attempted to march into downtown Birmingham, and hundreds of them were arrested. When hundreds more gathered the following day, Commissioner Connor instructed local police and fire departments to use force in order to cease the demonstrations. Over the next few days, the TV screen and newspaper pages showed images of children being hit by high-pressure fire hoses, beaten with police batons, and attacked my police dogs – soon sparking nation-wide outrage.
Simultaneously, the local white business structure was crumbling under the negative publicity, and the decline in business due to the boycott – but even still, many business owners and city officials were reluctant to negotiate with the protestors. As the national pressure on the White House continued to increase, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, his chief civil rights assistant, to facilitate negotiations between prominent Black citizens and representatives of Birmingham’s Senior Citizen’s Council – the city’s business leadership. The Senior Citizen’s Council sought out a moratorium on street protests in good faith before an final settlement would be declared, and Marshall encouraged campaign leaders to pause demonstrations, accept a temporary comprise, and negotiate the remaining terms at a later date. Some Black representatives were open to the idea, including MLK, who told the negotiators on May 8 that he would accept the compromise and halt the demonstrations.
At the time, Shuttleworth was being hospitalized for injuries incurred during the protests, and when he learned of the agreement between MLK and the white negotiators, he was furious. Feeling betrayed, Shuttleworth reminded King he could not legitimately speak for the Black population of Birmingham on his own, stating, “Go ahead and call it off … When I see it on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street. And your name’ll be Mud.” Ultimately, King made the announcement anyways, but was sure to state that demonstrations may resume if negotiations were not fruitful. By May 10, the negotiators has reached an agreement, and despite his falling out with MLK, Shuttleworth joined him to read the prepared statement, detailing the compromise (later coined as The Birmingham Truce Agreement):
- The removal of “Whites Only” & “Blacks Only” signs in restrooms & on drinking fountains
- A plan to desegregate lunch counters
- An ongoing “program of updating Negro employment”
- The formation of a bi-racial committee to monitor the progress of the agreement
- The release of jailed protestors on bond
Unfortunately, Birmingham’s segregationists responded to the agreement by carrying out a series of violent attacks. The night of the announcement, explosions went off near the Gaston Motel where MLK and SCLC leaders were previously staying, and the following day, the home of King’s brother, Alfred Daniel King, was bombed. President JFK responded to these incidents by ordering 3,000 federal troops into Birmingham, and made preparations to federalize the national guard. 4 months later, on September 15, KKK members bombed Birminghams 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 4 young girls. MLK delivered the eulogy at their joint funeral – preaching that the girls were “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
March on Washington & “I Have A Dream” Speech
In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and an elder statesman of the civil rights movement, had planned a mass march on Washington to protest Black soldier’s being excluded from World War II defence jobs and New Deal programs. However, a day before the event, President Roosevelt, met with Randolph and agreed to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination against workers in defence industries and government, and the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) for investigation into charges of racial discrimination – and in return Randolph called off the march. In the mid-1940s, Congress stopped funding the FEPC, forcing them to dissolve in 1946, and it wasn’t until 1966 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would take form and address some of the same issues.
In the meantime, MLK was continuing to rise as a young civil rights leader, and in the mid-1950’s Randolph proposed another mass march on Washington in 1957 – with hopes of capitalizing on King’s appeal and utilize the organizing power of the NAACP. In May 1957, more than 25,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and to urge the federal government to follow through with its decisions made during the trial. As well, it was to advocate for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which at the time was stalled in Congress. However, before the march, President JFK met with civil rights leaders before the march, voicing his concerns that the event would result in violence. In the meeting on June 22nd, JFK told the organizers that he felt the march was “ill-timed” as “we want success in the Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol.” However, Randolph, King and the other leaders insisted the march should move forward, with MLK telling the president “Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct-action movement which did not seem ill-timed.”
In the end, JFK reluctantly endorsed the March on Washington, but tasked his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with the coordination of the organizers – to ensure all security precautions were being taken. As well, the civil rights leaders decided to end the march at the Lincoln Memorial instead of the capital, to avoid making members of Congress feel like they were under siege. In the end, the March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963, with over 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 3,000 members of the press present to cover the event. Randolph started off the day’s slew of speakers once they were all gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, closing his speech with the promise that “We here today are only the first wave. When we leave, it will be to carry the civil rights revolution home with us into every nook and cranny of the land, and we shall return again and again to Washington in ever growing numbers until total freedom is ours.”
MLK was slated to speak last, and though his speech was scheduled to be 4 minutes long, his speech ended up being 16 minutes and what would become one of the most infamous speeches in history. As such, much of the speech that would become known as the “I Have A Dream” speech, was unplanned – including the famous line. The speech and march solidified MLK’s reputation locally and globally; later that year he was coined “Man of the Year” by TIME Magazine, and in 1964 he was the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Selma & The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
After the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there were still significant challenges ahead for Black Americans being able to practice their basic right to vote in the state. For months, the efforts of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register Black voters in the county of Selma had been thwarted. In January 1965, MLK arrived in the city and gave the backing of the SCLC to the cause. Non-violent demonstrations in Selma and the surrounding communities resulting in the arrests of thousands, including MLK, who wrote to the New York Times, “This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” These rising tensions finally spilled over in the nearby town of Marion on February 18, 1965, when state troopers clubbed protestors, and Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Black man trying to protect his mother from the police, was fatally shot. In response, civil rights leaders planned to take their cause directly to Alabama’s Governor, George Wallace, via a 54-mile march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Even though Governor Wallace ordered state troopers to use “whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march,” over 600 voting rights advocates set out on Sunday, March 7th.
On March 7, 1965, youth activist John Lewis and SCLC representative Hosea Williams led over 600 demonstrators through Selma, and across the Edmund Pettus bridge, where they were met by state troopers. Williams and Lewis stood their ground at the front of the line, but within minutes, the state troopers – armed with gas masks and batons, readily advanced on the peaceful marchers. Marchers were knocked to the ground, struck with batons, and suffocated with tear gas. Deputies on horseback were seen charging ahead and chasing the men, women, and children who were gasping for air back over the bridge, as they swung their weapons, many of which were rapped in barbed wire. Through all of this violence and terror, the protestors were forced back – but they did not fight back. Television cameras captured the entirety of the assault – transforming the local protest into a national civil rights event. While it took hours for the film captured to be flown from Alabama to the TV network headquarters in New York, once it aired that night – TV screens all over the country tuned in – seeing the incredible display of violence shown by the state troopers, in contrast with the heroic show of non-violence of the protestors. The day was soon coined “Bloody Sunday”.
Nation-wide outrage at “Bloody Sunday” swept the country, with sympathizers staging sit-ins, and traffic blockades and demonstrations occurring in solidarity with the voting rights marchers in Selma. Some Americans even travelled to Selma, where 2 days later, MLK attempted to organize another march, but to the disappointment of many, turned back when troopers again blocked the highway at the Edmund Pettus bridge. However, eventually the federal court ordered the permittance of a protest, and the marchers left Selma on March 21 under the protection of the federalized National Guard Troops, ordered by President Johnson to keep the peace. It was 4 days later that the marchers reached Montgomery, with the crowd having amassed to over 25,000 marchers by the time they reached the steps of the capitol. What occurred in Selma solidified the public opinion and motivated Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted on August 6, 1965, guaranteeing the right to vote for all Black Americans. Unfortunately, the events in Selma also deepened a growing chasm between MLK and many of the young radicals who disagreed with his non-violent methods and commitment to working within the already established political framework to make change.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Kr. was assassinated. He was fatally shot by a sniper while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, where he had travelled to support a sanitation workers’ strike. In the aftermath of his death, a wave of riots swept throughout major cities in the United States, while President Johnson declared a national day of mourning. King was rushed to the hospital, but was pronounced dead an hour later, at the age of 39. James Earl Ray, a known racist and escaped convict pled guilty to King’s murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, with no testimony being heard in his trial. Not too long after, Ray recanted his confession – claiming he was being framed, that he was a victim of a conspiracy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations (who also investigated the assassination of JFK) maintained that Ray killed King. Later on, Ray found sympathy in the unlikeliest of places – with members of King’s family. This included MLK’s son Dexter who publicly met with Ray in 1977, and began arguing for his case to reopen. Even though the government conducted several investigations, they all confirmed Ray’s guilt as the sole assassin – controversy still surrounds the assassination to this day.
This article was the fifth in a series in honour of Black History Month. Keep an eye out for more to come!