By Brandon Reid
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just 39 when he was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., April 4, 1968. Born in Atlanta Jan. 15, 1929, King would be celebrating his 82nd birthday if he were alive today. The nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday, Jan. 17.
King, a Baptist minister, became a civil rights activist early in his career and was the leader of the civil rights movement in the United States at the time of his death. Among his notable accomplishments, King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president; and led the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Later in his career, King focused on ending poverty and stopping the Vietnam War.
King was born the middle child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Alberta Williams King. He had an older sister, Willie Christine King, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. His father was born Michael King, and he was originally born Michael King Jr., but his father changed both their names to Martin in honor of the German Protestant leader Martin Luther following a family visit to Germany in 1934.
King married Corretta Scott in 1953, and the couple had four children, all of whom went on to be civil rights activists. Corretta Scott King died Jan. 30, 2006.
In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, King described his first experience with racism at age 6:
“From the age of three, I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but he was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school—separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.
“We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before. As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it, I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.
“My parents would tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.”
King attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. He skipped both the ninth and the 12th grades and entered Morehouse College in 1944 at age 15 without formally graduating from high school.
King was 21 when he was first introduced to the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi at a lecture about Gandhi by Howard University President Mordecai Johnson in the spring of 1950. In a sermon on Gandhi given March 22, 1959, in Montgomery, Ala., King explained:
“The world doesn’t like people like Gandhi. That’s strange, isn’t it? They don’t like people like Christ; they don’t like people like Lincoln. They killed him—this man who had done all of that for India, who gave his life and who mobilized and galvanized 400 million people for independence. … One of his own fellow Hindus felt that he was a little too favorable toward the Moslems, felt that he was giving in too much for the Moslems. … Here was the man of nonviolence, falling at the hands of a man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man with hate. This seems the way of history. And isn’t it significant that he died on the same day that Christ died? It was on Friday. And this is the story of history, but thank God it never stopped here. Thank God Good Friday is never the end. The man who shot Gandhi only shot him into the hearts of humanity. Just as when Abraham Lincoln was shot, mark you, for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot—that is, the attempt to heal the wounds of the divided nation—when Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by and said, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’ The same thing could be said of Mahatma Gandhi now: He belongs to the ages.”
Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, King addressed the influence of violence and hatred on the American society. As he wrote in a Dec. 21, 1963, column titled “What Killed JFK?” in the New York Amsterdam News, as it appeared in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence.
“It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama.
“So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
In 1964, at the age of 35, King became the youngest man, the second American and the third black man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other nonviolent means.
In addition to fighting for equal rights for all, King also fought against poverty and hunger. In his Jan. 7, 1968, sermon titled “Resolutions,” King explained:
“And I’m simply saying this morning that you should resolve that you will never become so secure in your thinking or your living that you forget the least of these. … In some sense, all of us are the least of these, but there are some who are least than the least of these. I try to get it over to my children early, morning after morning, when I get a chance. As we sit at the table, as we did this morning in morning devotions, I couldn’t pray my prayer without saying, ‘God, help us, as we sit at this table to realize that there are those who are less fortunate than we are. And grant that we will never forget them, no matter where we are.’ And I said to my little children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Aug. 2, 1983, creating a legal public holiday in honor of King. The federal holiday was first recognized in 1986. King was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
See the Vibe Entertainment “Community Calendar” for area King Day events.
From the Jan. 12-18, 2011 issue