Martin Luther King Jr. played a significant role in the push for universal civil rights in the United States. This charismatic man is best known for his “I Have A Dream” speech but is less well-known for many of his other speeches, walks, and his life in general. The goal of this paper is to show a more rounded Martin Luther King Jr. that many do not know about. It is also the goal of this paper to show King’s contribution to the Baptist movement. Some believe that King’s legacy is what it is because of his dedicated widow: Coretta Scott King. This will be explored as well.
Dr. King was a product of his environment. He grew up with racism and it was his quest to end racism, and civil rights, that governed his adult life. A look into Dr. King’s life, and what he chose to study, can help the reader understand where he was coming from and why he used certain methods of civil disobedience. Dr. King was well educated and used his education to assist with the civil rights movement in the United States. Many black South Africans used Dr. King’s example in their own quest for civil rights.
Please note that the terms “blacks”, “Negros” and “whites” are used as they were the identifiers of races during the time period that includes Martin Luther King, Jr. The identifier “African-American” is relatively new and is not used in this paper. No disrespect is intended but rather understanding about how the races referred to each other and themselves at that time period.
The young Martin King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15th 1929. He was born to a family that had deep roots in Georgia. His mother, father, and both sets of grandparents were born in Georgia. The 1930 Census reported that he lived with his parents, Martin L. King Sr. (known as “Daddy King”) and Elberta, his sister Willie, and his maternal Aunt Ida and cousin Joel King. The King family lived in a predominantly black neighborhood on Auburn Avenue called Sweet Auburn within Atlanta. This neighborhood was made up of affluent black families and was one of the most well to do black neighborhoods in the United States. He was the son and grandson of Baptist preachers from Atlanta, Georgia so it’s no wonder why he became one as well.
”Daddy King’ insisted that the children were not allowed in the parlor of their home and that the family sits down to dinner in the dining room every evening. Each evening a child was assigned to read a bible verse before the family ate their dinner. “Young Martin soon found the shortest verse in the Bible to read, ‘Jesus wept’. Education was important in the King family where the children were encouraged to learn to play the piano and read. Martin’s favorite game was ‘Monopoly’. Martin took his father’s desire for his children to be well educated to heart as is evidenced in this quote:
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Martin Luther King Jr.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was located next door to the King family home on Auburn Avenue. The King’s daily life was intertwined with the activities of the church. Martin gave his first sermon at the church when he was 17 years old.
The King Family shared their roots with other black families in the Deep South. The Civil War brought their ancestors freedom from slavery (Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), equal protection under the law (Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), and the right to vote (Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Unfortunately, throughout the South Jim Crow laws were enforced by the white population of the South. Many blacks lived under the Jim Crow laws without protesting until after the Second World War. Many blacks had served in segregated units in the armed forces and were exposed to European culture that did not segregate based upon race. These black servicemen returned to the United States, and its segregation, and began to fight for their civil rights. This more organized civil rights movement came into being when Martin King was a young high school student in the Atlanta Public Schools.
Young Martin attended the segregated Atlanta Public Schools before heading off to college. He attended Morehouse College, an Atlanta institution historically known to educated young black men. He graduated from Morehouse in 1948. King was ordained in the ministry of the National Baptist Church. He then attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania before attending Boston University where he received his doctorate in 1955. At Crozer King came under the care of Dr. Joseph Pius Barbour who had attended Morehouse with Martin Luther King Sr. King Sr. had asked Barbour to “watch-care” for his son during his stay at Crozer. Dr. Barbour was very much the “father away from father” to Martin. Barbour served as another example, for Martin, of how a black pastor should care for his church. The young Martin was often over at the Barbour home for dinner and attended the Calvary Baptist Church where Dr. Barbour was pastor. The young King was a Sunday school teacher at the church during his three-year stay at Crozer.
As stated earlier Martin King attended segregated schools and an all-black college (Morehouse). His stay at Crozer was his first experience in an integrated school. Black students and white students attended the college together. But, the Barbours offered extra classes to the black students at the seminary. The idea behind the extra classes was to prep the students, such as King, for the rigors of Boston University where they would experience rigid academic testing.
The newly graduated Dr. King brought more than a doctoral degree home to Atlanta. While at Boston University he met a young Coretta Scott who was studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston. They married in 1953 and she graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in music. The couple then moved to Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King pastored the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King and Coretta had four children: Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s youth, education, and readings prepared him to become an active civil rights leader. While in Boston, Dr. King had studied the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. He was struck by the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience and taught that method to those who would listen. As it turned out, nonviolent civil disobedience was used extensively during the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King hadn’t been back in Atlanta long when events relating to civil rights erupted. Dr. King had heard about Rosa Parks’ arrest for violating a segregated seating ordinance in Montgomery Alabama. Soon after, Dr. King met with members of the NAACP. As a result of the meeting, blacks were encouraged to boycott the city buses in Montgomery. Dr. King was elected as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and from here on his life was in danger. As a result of the boycott, which lasted about a year, segregated seating was discontinued. It took until the Supreme Court ruled that the segregation laws in Montgomery were unconstitutional for the boycott to end successfully. This was a big victory for Southern blacks and was what first put Dr. King in the limelight.
After the boycott, Dr. King began traveling about making speeches about civil rights and segregation. King joined the ranks of other civil rights activists (some from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) who were also traveling around making similar speeches to members of black communities. Many came to listen to the speeches including whites who supported the Civil Rights Movement.
During 1957 King and other ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Not long after the SCLC was formed Dr. King was elected president of the organization. It was during this time that there were several threats on King’s life, his home was bombed, and he was arrested and jailed. It was also during this turbulent year that Dr. King had the opportunity to meet with vice president Nixon. He met with President Eisenhower as well about a year later. It seemed that these meetings were no more than photo opportunities because nothing came from them.
1958 was a continuation of 1957 as Dr. King was regularly harassed, arrested, and jailed. While jailed in Birmingham Alabama he wrote a letter that included the following quote:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” Martin Luther King Jr.
These events did not sway Dr. King from his mission of promoting nonviolent civil disobedience to gain the civil rights that blacks were entitled to. Dr. King referred to this time period as the “Stride Toward Freedom”. Also during this period Dr. King was constantly traveling and giving speeches about voting rights and nonviolent civil disobedience. He called his work during this period the “Crusade for Citizenship”. Dr. King continually taught about nonviolent civil disobedience. He had learned about this type of protest by reading about Mahatma Gandhi. When Dr. King was invited to visit India by its then Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru he jumped on the opportunity and visited India with his wife, Coretta. Upon his return, he learned that the nonviolent civil disobedience that he advocated was answered with violence by whites. He needed only to read the newspapers and watch the television to see how things had exploded in his absence. He continued advocating for nonviolent civil disobedience.
In 1960 the King family moved to Dr. King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia where Dr. King co-pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church. This church had been in the family so to speak. His father had been pastor of the church since his grandfather had passed it on to him in 1931. It seemed like the obvious progression of the church leadership to Dr. King.
In Greensboro, North Carolina things were heating up in the fight for civil rights. Black students of the city were staging “sit-ins” in local diners and lunch counters. Their example of nonviolent protest spread across the South. Dr. King invited student sit-in leaders to meet and coordinate their efforts. Again, Dr. King advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience. Another result of the meeting with these students was the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These sit-in leaders were often joined by white sympathizers.
There is one thing that everyone can agree on: Dr. King had a gift when it came to speech writing and delivering to an audience. Dr. King was a charismatic leader whose speeches worked to bring people together for the cause of civil rights. Charismatic leaders possess great powers of charm or influence.Together with his well-written speeches, his charisma pulled people together under the cause of civil rights. Because of his leadership abilities students, and other Southern blacks, listened to his quest for nonviolent civil disobedience. During one speech designed to pull people together under a common cause he is quoted as saying:
“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”.
Martin Luther King Jr. 1963
One of Dr. King’s most memorable speeches was his “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963. The gathering of individuals on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington monument was there to support equal justice for all. They listened to many speeches that day. And then they listened to Dr. King’s speech which was described as “electrifying”. Dr. King used all he had been taught over the years to put together a speech that would pull people together.
Dr. King used several literary techniques often used in poetry and short stories. What is most evident in the “I Have A Dream” speech is his use of repetition:
“But one hundred years later we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is not free.”
“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
“One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
Another noteworthy item in the above quote is the usage of the word “Negro”. Dr. King chose not to use the identifier “black” or any other reference word to describe people of color. This quote was designed to catch people’s attention. The audience left the speech with parts they could hold on to because of the repetition and usage of keywords. Dr. King continued to use repetition in his speech as evidenced here:
“Now is the time to make real promises of democracy…”
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation…”
“Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity…”
“Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice…”
Again, this use of repetition helps make the point that Dr. King wanted to emphasize. Dr. King used similar repetition throughout his speech. The repetition that is most remembered is:
“I Have a Dream…”
Dr. King used this phrase eight times in his speech to emphasize what people of color should look forward to and work hard for – equal rights for all. Dr. King quoted the U.S. Constitution in his speech as well:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed:–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Dr. King ended this historic speech with “Let Freedom Ring” and “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
After Dr. King’s speech people left the Mall highly motivated to continue the struggle for equality and civil rights for all.
Many believe that this was the first speech where Dr. King focused on the “I have a Dream” idea. In fact, the first speech of this kind took place in Detroit, Michigan in June of 1963. On June 23rd Dr. King joined a march that commemorated the racial violence that had occurred twenty years earlier in the city. Others who marched with Dr. King included United Auto Workers president Walther Reuther, former governor Swainson, and Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. 125,000 people of the city joined Dr. king. As they marched they sang “We Shall Overcome”. At this march, Dr. King addressed the crowd with a speech that included an emphasis on the ending of segregation. King also told the crowd about his dream:
“to walk where whites and blacks were walking together, hand in hand, in harmoy and equality” Martin Luther King Jr. June 23rd 1963 Detroit.
Dr. King returned to Detroit in 1968 to give a speech on civil rights. The public forum was actually held at Grosse Point, Michigan, and included many speakers. Most notably were Dr. King and Julian Bond. Many came only to listen to King. Dr. King made a point of not just pushing for civil rights and equal opportunity for all in the Deep South, but also in American inner cities where many black Americans lived and worked.
Vietnam and President Johnson
Like many important leaders of his time, Dr. King had opinions about the conflict in Vietnam. His position was against the war. Despite being against the War Dr. King had the opportunity to meet with President Johnson. During the meeting with Johnson Dr. King and the President agreed that “civil rights for black Americans was a moral issue that the American people needed to confront with action”. According to the book “Judgement Days” by Nick Kotz, President Johnson was looked at as a man of great moral courage “who deeply understood and confronted the crippling effects of three centuries of racial discrimination” Dr. King’s meeting with President Johnson was anything but a photo opportunity. The two were pictured in deep discussion each giving a sincere ear to the other voice.
Radical Opinions and the Final Crusade
Many who worked with Dr. King feel that he became more radical toward the end of his life. It has even been suggested that King may have predicted the possible assassination of people within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1968 King focused his attention on what he termed the “Poor People’s Campaign” His idea included forcing the Government to withdraw from Vietnam and using those monies used to fund the war to fund the abolishment of poverty. In a way, it seemed as if Dr. King’s “dream” became bigger and included all Americans. He held the radical opinion that all of American society needed restructuring. It does seem that he did predict the national minimum wage when he “called for a guaranteed annual wage for all able-bodied people.” He also expressed that some industries should be nationalized and that people should “question the capitalistic economy”.
It is interesting to note that during his last days King expressed what he thought was going to happen during the March on Washington. He thought that the marchers would be met by federal troops who would kill many including him. He was very surprised that no major confrontations took place. What King really hoped for was an “Economic Bill of Rights for poor people.
It was during this timeframe that King was quoted as saying:
“The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men”. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
By 1968 King was facing a backlash of negative opinions from whites living in suburbs and working-class neighborhoods in both the North and South. With so much good written about Dr. King, it is surprising that there are negative commentaries about Dr. King. He was not a God or Prophet but a man who could make mistakes. Because of all the good, he did it is very hard to imagine that Dr. King could do anything bad.
There was Dr. King accused of sexual escapades. There was Dr. King accused of plagiarism. And, there was the Dr. King who was a sinner just like the rest of us. The Civil Rights Movement needed the perfect man to represent and push for the cause. Dr. King is remembered for everything he did and is an American icon for it. But, when negativity surfaces we must remember that he was just a man.
Dr. King was so sure in 1963 that he would be assassinated and that federal troops would cause a bloody conflict when the March on Washington occurred. He was surprised but not willing to let go of the idea that he, or others in the civil rights movement, could be killed. He had wanted the members of the SCLC to set up a system of leadership so that if someone was killed another could quickly take over so that the civil rights movement could go on. In February 1968 (two months before he was assassinated) he addressed the congregation at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and asked the congregation:
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel
Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This man, with such great faith in God, seemed to predict his assassination. On April 4th of 1958 Dr. King, aged 39, in Memphis to support the cause of black sanitation workers, was shot while he stood on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel. He later died in a Memphis Hospital. James Earl Ray was quickly caught and identified as the shooter. There are conspiracy theories but Ray insisted that he worked alone.
What if Dr. King was alive today? Would he see progress in the United States? He certainly would notice, and be proud of, our fully integrated Armed Forces, integrated colleges and universities, and integrated neighborhoods. He would be deeply saddened by self-segregation that takes place in our country’s inner cities, the higher conviction rate, and jail time meted out to African American young men. He would be deeply saddened by inner-city children who are reminded that studying hard is being “too white”. He would be deeply saddened by the low high school graduation rate in inner cities such as Cleveland, Ohio’s 29% graduation rate for African Americans. He would be deeply disappointed in the illegitimacy rate among African Americans and with poverty in general.
The United States has certainly made progress in the past 40 years since his murder. But the country has so many race-related problems. There are the sundown unwritten laws that mean that no African Americans can be in town after dark. There are the misconceptions people have about young African American men being thieves. There are those who stare at young African American men while holding tightly to their purse, wallet, or handbag.
Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King is credited with pushing forward with Dr. King’s civil rights movement. Four days after her husband was killed she went back to Memphis to take part in the march that Dr. King had organized. Coretta moved forward into the limelight to continue the work started by her husband. Mrs. King was a well-educated and well-spoken woman that began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. She called it:
“the most cruel and evil war in the history of mankind”
Mrs. King was responsible for creating the Coalition of Conscious which sponsored the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1983. Coretta Scott King continued as a strong advocate for those oppressed in the United States and abroad until her death on January 30th 2006. Her legacy includes recognition as a civil rights leader in her own right.
Dr. King’s writings
Dr. King was a prolific reader and writer. He wrote the following books and papers:
Stride toward freedom; the Montgomery story (1958)
- The Measure of a Man (1959)
- Strength to Love (1963)
- Why We Can’t Wait (1964)
- Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (1967)
- The Trumpet of Conscience (1968)
- A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is still present in the hearts and minds of those who knew him. As they age the younger generations are tasked with keeping his legacy alive. In Washington D.C. there are plans to build a national memorial to honor Dr. king’s memory and legacy and to educated future generations. The plan for the memorial shows that its location is just southeast from the Washington Memorial and southwest of the Jefferson Memorial. Lines drawn between the three memorials would form a triangle. The memorial will contain four elements and a visitor center. The four elements are the Mountain of Dispair, Water Wall of Quotes, Stone of Hope, and Niches for Reflection.
In Atlanta, Georgia The King Center memorializes both Dr. King and his wife Coretta. Coretta Scott King set up the King Center in 1968 after her husband was assassinated in Memphis. Visitors are greeted with this statement:
Established in 1968 by Coretta Scott King, The King Center is the official, living memorial dedicated to the advancement of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of America’s greatest nonviolent movement for justice, equality, and peace.
The King Center offers many educational programs that continue teaching what Martin Luther King Jr. had taught and lived during his short 39 years. Some of the programs offered include:
The Beloved Community Network
- Nonviolence or Nonexistence Online Learning Program
- Re-Ignite the Dream Campaign: Building the Beloved Community through Service
- King and the Modern Civil Rights Museum Scholar and Historian Research Program
- The King Papers Project
- Education through Exploration Visitor Services Program
- Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Service Summit
- There is something for everyone to learn at the King Center.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the man for the job. His parents made sure he was well-educated, well-spoken, and well-behaved. He left home for college ready to learn. He entered the integrated world of graduate school and became a minister of the National Baptist Church. He married and moved to Alabama to pastor his first Church (Dexter Avenue Baptist Church). Later he moved his family of wife and four children to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and became an associate pastor at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
There are many words that can be used to describe Dr. King: charismatic, leader, loving husband, Doctor, and the list goes on. There are those who have written about Dr. King’s indiscretions and radical beliefs. But those people need to be reminded that he was not a God or prophet but a man who sinned like the rest of us.
Dr. King’s education and family prepared him well to become a leader in the civil rights movement. He was the right man at the right time. His mark on American history is significant.
His dream continues.
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