Today, the United States celebrates the greatest leader of the civil rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King led the Montgomery bus boycott, was the keynote speaker at the March on Washington, and was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But single events aside, it was his policy of nonviolent protest from 1957 to 1968 that propelled him to into worldwide leader and hero status.
King was born Michael Luther King in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929 to Martin Luther King Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta Williams King, a former schoolteacher. He later changed his name to Martin when he was about 6-years-old.
After attending and graduating from segregated grammar and high schools at the age of 15, King earned a bachelor's degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished black institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated.
After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955.
In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott. They had two sons and two daughters.
Launching a Legacy
King returned to the south to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. By this time, King was a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation.
In early December, 1955, King led the first great black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States: the 382-day bus boycott.
During the days of the boycott, King overcame arrest and other violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. On December 21, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.
A growing national hero, King called a number of black leaders together in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was elected its president, and he soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi.
After finishing his first book and making a trip to India, King returned to the United States in 1960 to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Three years later, King's nonviolent tactics were put to the test in Birmingham, during a mass protest for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. Police brutality used against the marchers dramatized the plight of blacks to the nation and to the entire world.
King was arrested, but his voice was not silenced: He wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a manifesto of the Negro revolution.
Later that year, King was a principal speaker at the historic March on Washington, where he delivered the "I Have A Dream" message to 250,000 people.
Time magazine designated him as its Person of the Year for 1963.
Nobel Peace Prize
At the age of 35, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
When he returned from Norway, where he had gone to accept the award, King took on new challenges. In Selma, Ala., he led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. King next brought his crusade to Chicago, where he launched programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide housing.
In the north, however, King soon discovered that young and angry blacks cared little for his preaching and even less for his pleas for peaceful protest. Their disenchantment was one of the reasons he rallied behind a new cause: the war in Vietnam.
Although he was trying to create a new coalition based on equal support for peace and civil rights, it caused an immediate rift.
Vietnam and Poverty
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) saw King's shift of emphasis as "a serious tactical mistake" and the Urban League warned that the "limited resources" of the civil-rights movement would be spread too thin.
But from the vantage point of history, King's timing was perfect. Students, professors, intellectuals, clergymen, and reformers rushed into the movement. Then, King turned his attention to the domestic issue that he felt was directly related to the Vietnam struggle: poverty.
He called for a guaranteed family income, he threatened national boycotts, and he spoke of disrupting entire cities by nonviolent "camp-ins."
With this in mind, he began to plan a massive march of the poor on Washington, D.C., envisioning a demonstration of such intensity and size that Congress would have to recognize and deal with the huge number of desperate and downtrodden Americans.
King interrupted these plans to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation men's strike. He wanted to discourage violence, and he wanted to focus national attention on the plight of the poor, unorganized workers of the city. The men were bargaining for basic union representation and long-overdue raises.
But he never got back to his poverty plans. On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, King was shot in the neck by a rifle bullet.
His death caused a wave of violence in major cities across the country.
However, King's legacy has lived on.
In 1969, his widow, Coretta Scott King, organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Today it stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
His birthday, Jan. 15, is a national holiday, celebrated each year throughout the United States.
The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum.
Source: Infoplease.com; The Seattle Times, NobelPrize.org