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Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized as the driving force of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s. An eloquent orator, he delivered at the height of his fame an average of450 speeches a year throughout the country, calling for racial equality.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up in the Jim-Crow South
King was a gifted and precocious child. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up listening to his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr., preach at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Young King took an interest in the power of words. King’s parents and grandmother encouraged young Martin’s public speaking, and he often sang and recited biblical passages for church audiences.
King’s childhood was far from idyllic, however. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, one of the first phrases King learned to read was ”Whites Only.” Jim Crow laws, which were enforced primarily in southern states, ensured racial segregation in public places like schools, transportation, and restrooms. Encounters with overt racism frustrated and embittered the young King. Despite the discouraging aspects of his youth in Atlanta, he was a motivated and successful student, and he enrolled at Morehouse College at the age of fifteen.
From Agnosticism to Ministry
In 1948, King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, one of six black students in the predominantly white school. King was an excellent student, graduating at the top of his class in 1951. At Crozer, he formed strong friendships with a number of white students; for the first time in his life, King realized that whites could be his allies. Most importantly, however, at the seminary he was exposed to the works of two men who would shape him as a minister and as a civil rights leader: Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian and social activist, and Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the India independence movement (India gained independence from British rule in 1947).
King Organizes Bus Boycott in Montgomery
In the fall of 1951, King enrolled at Boston University to pursue a doctorate in theology. Two years later, he married Coretta Scott, a student at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. In 1955, King organized a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African American woman who had refused to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus. The boycott lasted more than a year. Despite receiving numerous threatening phone calls, being arrested, and having his home fire-bombed, King and the boycott prevailed. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually declared Montgomery’s bus segregation laws illegal, and, in December 1956, King rode on Montgomery’s first integrated bus.
King soon became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the goal of boosting black voter registration and ending segregation in the South. In 1959, King and his wife spent a month in India, visiting the sites of Gandhi’s struggle against the British and meeting people who had known the Indian leader. He returned home inspired by Gandhi’s enormous achievements. King resigned as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery so he could devote more of his time to the civil rights effort.
Protests in Birmingham
Near the end of 1962, he decided to focus his energies on the desegregation of Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham, the state’s largest populated city, was at that time what King called in his book Why We Can’t Wait (1964) ”the most segregated city in America,” which was precisely why he had chosen it as his target. In this work, King detailed the advance planning that went into the Birmingham campaign. Most important was the training in nonviolent techniques given to those who volunteered to participate in the demonstrations.
One of the unusual and most effective aspects of the Birmingham campaign was King’s decision to use children in the demonstrations. When the protests came to a head on May 3, 1963, it was after the arrests of nearly 1,000 young people the previous day. As another wave of protestors, mostly children and teenagers, took to the streets, they were suddenly hit with jets of water from high-powered fire hoses. Police dogs were also released on the demonstrators. The photographs circulated by the media ofchildren being attacked brought cries of outrage from throughout the country and the world. President Kennedy sent a Justice Department representative to Birmingham to work for a peaceful solution to the problem. Within a week negotiators produced an agreement that met King’s major demands, including desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains in the city and hiring of blacks in positions previously closed to them.
Although the Birmingham campaign ended in triumph for King, at the outset he was criticized for his efforts. Imprisoned at the beginning of the protest for disobeying a court injunction forbidding him to lead any demonstrations in Birmingham, King spent some of his time in jail composing an open letter to his critics, the celebrated Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963).
King Tells the Nation about His Dream of Racial Equality
Another important event of 1963 was a massive march on Washington, D.C., which King planned together with leaders of other civil rights organizations. An estimated 250,000 people were on hand to hear King and other dignitaries speak at the march’s end point, the Lincoln Memorial. While King’s biographers have noted that the young minister struggled all night writing words to inspire the marchers, he subsequently deviated from his prepared text and gave the most eloquent and powerful speech of his career, the speech known as ”I Have a Dream” (1963).
On January 3, 1964, King was proclaimed ”Man of the Year” by Time magazine, the first black to be so honored. Later that year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the twelfth American, the third black, and the youngest—he was thirty-five—person ever to receive the award. He donated the $54,600 prize to the S.C.L.C. and other civil rights groups.
”Bloody Sunday” and the Voting Rights Act
After facing months of intimidation and threats from white officials during their voter registration efforts in Alabama, civil rights activists organized a nonviolent protest march from Selma to Montgomery (the state capital) to draw attention to the disenfranchisement of black voters. About 600 marchers set out on March 7, 1965, and only made it a few blocks, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, before they were attacked by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies wielding tear gas and billy clubs. King led a second march two days later, which did not make it to Montgomery, and a third march, this one with court sanction, on March 21. King and some 25,000 supporters marched into Montgomery on March 25. Within a few days, President Lyndon Johnson made a televised appearance before a joint session of Congress in which he demanded passage of a voting rights bill. Later that year President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, with King and other civil rights leaders looking on.
Discord Within the Civil Rights Movement
By this time King was ready to embark on his next project: moving his nonviolent campaign to the black ghettoes of the North. Chicago was chosen as the first target, but the campaign did not go the way King had planned. Rioting broke out in the city just two days after King initiated his program. Discord was beginning to be felt within the civil rights movement as well. While King insisted on a nonviolent approach to social change, other black leaders, including Malcolm X, believed that more aggressive, even violent, efforts were necessary to challenge the white power structure in the United States. Instead of nonviolent protest like those in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, riots broke out in Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, and more than thirty other U.S. cities, as African Americans grew increasingly enraged at the failures of the local and federal governments to protect and uphold their rights. King also frustrated some followers by broadening his focus to include protests against the Vietnam War. Many of his followers were worried King would alienate
President Johnson by speaking out against the war. On April 4, 1967, King gave a speech titled ”Beyond Vietnam” at New York City’s Riverside Church in which he sharply criticized American military actions in Vietnam. The speech provoked outrage in the press and among white ministers, and King’s broad popularity diminished somewhat.
Assassination by James Earl Ray?
A year to the day after his Vietnam speech—on April 4, 1968—King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, a white man whom King had never met, was later convicted of the crime. Ray, who died in prison in 1998, had confessed, but later recanted.
Since his death, King has been hailed around the world as a human rights icon. His legacy of nonviolent resistance to oppression and leadership during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States continue to inspire people still struggling to achieve equality. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a national holiday to honor King, Martin Luther King, Jr. It is now observed on the third Monday each January.
Works in Literary Context
Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately embraced nonviolence as a method for social reform and encouraged others to fight social injustice, not with anger or hate but with Christian love. He was influenced by a number of famous leaders including Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Theodor Herzl, Mahatma Gandhi, Benjamin Mays, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, Henry David Thoreau, Howard Thurman, Leo Tolstoy, and Walter Rauschenbusch.
King’s oratory and writing were influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. Gandhi advocated satyagraha, which he translated as ”the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.” Furthermore, he encouraged his followers to denounce violence and to repay evil with good. King exhorted his followers to do the same. For example, in Letter from Birmingham City Jail King argues that if a law is unjust, civil disobedience—a nonviolent opposition to law or authority—is justified.
Sermons & Biblical Imagery
Prior to his most famous written and spoken work, King established a reputation for moving crowds as a minister. With a commanding voice and message of hope, King combined emotionally-laden words with repetition and metaphor to reach his audience. He continued using this powerful rhetorical style when he began speaking to larger audiences outside of the church setting. By invoking frequent references to Christian doctrine and the U. S. Constitution, he grounded his call for freedom in a history familiar to his listeners, thus making his dream accessible to people of diverse backgrounds. Letter from Birmingham City Jail and ”I Have a Dream” two of his most famous works, embody these techniques and have come to symbolize the civil rights struggle. Filled with biblical imagery and resounding emotion, they cry out for justice, equality, and freedom.
King has inspired many people with his work during the Civil Rights Movement including, but not limited to, Albert Lutuli, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton.
Works in Critical Context
During his lifetime, King was a man of controversy, hated by whites who opposed racial equality and by militant blacks who considered his philosophy of nonviolence “self-deceiving.” Eldridge Cleaver, for example, did not like King and instead supported Malcolm X, who called for ”black liberation by any means necessary.” The Nobel Prize gave King even wider recognition as a world leader. ”Overnight,” commented Flip Shulke and Penelope O. McPhee in King Remembered, (1986) ”King became … a symbol of world peace. He knew that if the Nobel Prize was to mean anything, he must commit himself more than ever to attaining the goals of the black movement through peace.”
The Controversy Continues
Controversy about King was reignited during the late twentieth-century. Some works—particularly the Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1991) and David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986)—allege that King had extramarital sexual relations. More recently, Clayborne Carson, engaged by Coretta Scott King to compile a collection of King’s writings, announced that King may have plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation and other writings. These disclosures prompted scores of newspaper editorials and other responses arguing that the allegations had no bearing on King’s contributions to the civil rights struggle. ”[King’s] achievement glows unchallenged through the present shadow,” states a 1990 editorial in the New York Times. ”Martin Luther King’s courage was not copied; and there was no plagiarism in his power.”
- Bennett, Lerone, Jr. What Manner of Man. Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1964.
- Bishop, Jim. The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Putnam, 1971.
- Bleinweiss, Robert M., editor. Marching to Freedom: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Middletown, Conn.: American Education Publications, 1968.
- Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the KingYears, 1963-65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
- Clarke, Thurston. Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004.
- Clayton, Edward T. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Peaceful Warrior. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.:Prentice-Hall, 1968.
- Davis, Lenwood G. I Have a Dream: Life and Times of Martin Luther King, Jr. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
- Daynes, Gary. Making Villains, Making Heroes: Joseph R. McCarthy and Martin Luther KingJr. in American Memory. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.
- Dyson, Michael Eric. I May Not Get There with You. New York: Freepress, 2001.
- Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
- Franklin, V. P. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Park Lane Press, 1998.
- King, Coretta Scott. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Holt, 1969. Lewis, David L. King: A Critical Biography. New York: Praeger, 1970.
- Lincoln, Eric C., editor. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
- Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved American. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Miller, Keith D. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources. New York: Free Press, 1992.
- Miller, William Robert. Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Life, Martyrdom, and Meaning for the World. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968.
- Moses, Greg. Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. New York: Gilford Press, 1997.
- Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
- Paulsen, Gary and Dan Theis. The Man Who Climbed the Mountain: Martin Luther King. Milwaukee: Raintree Editions, 1976.
- Ray, James Earl. Who Killed Martin Luther King?: The True Story by the Alleged Assassin. Washington, D. C.: National Press Books, 1991.
- Schulke, Flip and Penelope O. McPhee. King Remembered, with a foreword by Jesse Jackson. New York: Norton, 1986.
- Schuman, Michael. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Leader for Civil Rights. Springfield, N. J.: Enslow, 1996.
- Tucker, Deborah J. and Carrolyn A. Davis. Unstoppable Man: A References:. Detroit: Wayne State University, 1994.
- Witherspoon, William Roger. Martin Luther King, Jr.: To the Mountaintop. Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
- The King Center. Retrieved October 12, 2008, from http://thekingcenter.com.
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