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Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

King's Early Life

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael and Alberta King. Ironically, the same year as the Holocaust victim and diarist Anne Frank. After his father, a senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, participated in the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Berlin, Germany, he decided to change his name to Martin Luther, the father of Reformation. During his trip, he visited where Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg castle church's door to challenge the Catholic Church.

That one act led to dissension between the Catholics and Protestants in the New England colonies. Many of our founding fathers were protestant, and some religiously discriminated against people that practiced Catholicism. For example, the Know Nothing, or the American Party, prominent during the 1850s, was intolerant towards Germans, Irish, and Catholics. That trip profoundly affected the senior King, prompting him to change his and his son's name to Martin Luther.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was smart for his age and skipped the 9th and 12th grades. Before graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, an HBCU, he became an ordained minister. King received his divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and his doctoral degree in theology from Boston University. While in Boston, he met Coretta Scott, a music student from Marion, Alabama, in 1953. In that union, they produced Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice. The subsequent year, he relocated to Montgomery, Alabama, to become a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Civil Rights Movement

The 1950s was a turbulent time for Black people, especially in the south. In 1955, a 14-year-old named Emmitt Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, by John William Milan and Roy Bryant for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Before going on his trip, his mother, Mamie Till, forewarned him that life was different in the south than the north because of racial segregation. At Emmitt’s funeral, Mamie wanted the world to see what those men did to her son. So, pictures of Emmitt's mutilated body became the impetus of the Civil Rights Movement.

Later that year, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give her seat to a white man on the bus. Seeing those injustices happening to blacks, he decided to become an agent of change. Jesus Christ and Indian social activist Mahatma Gandhi influenced his philosophy of nonviolence. Gandhi stood up against the unfair treatment Indians received in South Africa from British colonial rule.

Dr. King included his philosophy of nonviolence in his book, Stride Toward Freedom:

  • Principle One: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.

  • Principle Two: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.

  • Principle Three: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, or evil, not people.

  • Principle Four: Nonviolence holds that unearned, voluntary suffering for a just cause can educate and transform people and societies.

  • Principle Five: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.

  • Principle Five: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

In 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, King, along with Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth, started Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help coordinate the civil rights protests in the south. On March 7, also known as 'Bloody Sunday", approximately 600 non-violent protestors left Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma intending to protest in a march 54 miles to Montgomery for voter's rights. As they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge, law enforcement officers and local vigilantes attacked them with nightsticks and teargas, hospitalizing at least 50 protestors. The televised historical attack allowed Americans to witness first-hand what they were hearing and reading about the horror of segregation.

Before President John F. Kennedy's death, he proposed strict laws to protect the civil rights of all American citizens. When Lyndon B. Johnson became president after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson persuaded Congress to uphold Kennedy's promise. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Monument to draw attention to the challenges and inequalities African-Americans were facing in America. That same day, King recited his "I Have a Dream" speech.

The march on Washington was not the first time King cited his “I have a Dream” speech. Two times before: April at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and Cabo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. That speech was not part of the plans for that day. King started his speech with the promissory note analogy written by Speechwriter Clarence B. Jones and Advisor Stanley Levison. During his speech, the renowned gospel singer exclaimed, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin, tell 'em, about the dream!"

One of the most famous lines of his speech "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character ."However, some are simultaneously quoting his words and suppressing the dream. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Dr. Bernice King, his daughter, commented about people misusing his quotes, "In '68, my father was one of the most hated men in America, and now he's one of the most loved men in the world. So much so that people do take liberties and kind of take different quotes to fit their situation, and nothing is more frustrating for me than that. I say to people, 'If you're going to use his words, try to find the context of those words that he used them in."

At 35, King became the youngest to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Oslo, Norway. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, by James Earl Ray.

Key Legislation Passed

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964: It bans discrimination based on a person's color, race, national origin, religion, or sex.

  • Voting Rights Act of 1965: A law passed to help enforce the 15th amendment (This amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870) by ensuring that no American citizen shall not be denied the right to vote based on race or skin color.

  • Civil Rights Act of 1968: Prohibited racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

Martin Luther King Holiday

Four days after King's death, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a bill proposing Martin Luther King Day, which garnered little support. It was not until many years later that more blacks became elected to Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), founded in 1971, was instrumental in advocating for the King holiday. CBC uses its constitutional power and the federal government's financial resources to help those historically disenfranchised realize the American Dream. SCLC gathered 3 million signatures in support of the King holiday.

In 1973, Illinois became the first state to celebrate the King holiday, then Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 1979, Coretta Scott King, his widow, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the importance of having a King holiday. She organized a national campaign along with the King Center to garner more than 300,000 signatures on a petition. With the support of Jimmy Carter, the bill was brought to the House floor and denied by five votes. In 1980, singer Stevie Wonder wrote Happy Birthday to elevate the cause.

Excerpts from the song:

You know it doesn't make much sense

There ought to be a law against

Anyone who takes offense

At a day in your celebration

'Cause we all know in our minds

That there ought to be a time

That we can set aside

To show just how much we love you