By Brandon Reid
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be turning 84 if he were alive today as the nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday, Jan. 21.
A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career and was the leader of the civil rights movement in the United States until April 4, 1968, when he was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, King was just 39 at the time of his death.
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. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
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 hunger 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.
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.
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.”
In his sermon “So Precious that you will Die for it,” given Nov. 5, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King said: “I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice. …
“Don’t ever think that you’re by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary, but you never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you, and criticize you. But you never go alone, for somewhere I read that one with God is a majority. And God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority. Walk with him this morning and believe in Him and do what is right, and He’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages. Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul, but I heard the voice of Jesus saying, still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone.”
See the Vibe Entertainment calendars for area King Day events.
From the Jan. 16-22, 2013, issue