Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, but he was such pivotal figure in the progress of civil rights, and a true gentleman, that people all round the world should celebrate his life and his legacy. In his brief 39 years on this Earth he changed the course of American history.
Michael Luther King was born on 15th January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, to Martin, a Baptist minister and Alberta, a schoolteacher. Later he was renamed Martin after his father. At 15, he made a lifelong friendship with his schoolteacher Benjamin Mays, and this, combined with his father’s influenced, is what drove him to become ordained and go on to study theology in Pennsylvania and then in Boston, Massachusetts, where he met his wife Coretta Scott.
In 1954, he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks was famously arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. After this incident, King was a leading figure in organising the boycott by African Americans of buses in Montgomery. He was committed to a principle of non-violent action heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s success in opposing the British in India. This non-violent action marks King out above many other activists in history. To oppose oppression with only your mind and will-power is the mark of a true gentleman.
In 1957, King was joined several other activists to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was elected president with the task of coordinating civil rights activity across the region. However, he was not immediately successful and many considered him to be merely a man of words, but in 1963 the ‘Birmingham Campaign’ changed this.
In Birmingham, Alabama, desegregation was being violently resisted by the white population. The city was dubbed ‘Bombingham’, due to the frequency of attacks on black homes and activists. The African American demonstrations were the most massive civil rights protests that had yet occurred.
King defied an injunction against the protests and was incarcerated in solitary confinement. After his release, thousands of schoolchildren and students staged marches in Birmingham. Television coverage of police brutality against young protesters sparked global outrage and won public support for King’s cause.
King utilised this success to generate momentum for the cause which culminated in the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963, when King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech to over 200,000 people. The ethos of his speech was about looking forward to the day when there was freedom and equality for all.
In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Civil Rights Act made a great leap forwards. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act followed, helping to undo disenfranchisement of African Americans in certain states.
King now pursued another cause; helping the urban poor. In 1966, he moved his family to Chicago’s black ghetto. His peaceful tactics were not so well received, and there was growing support for more militant opposition. In addition, he opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War further, which did not help bolster his influence on national policy.
Tragically, in December 1967, he was shot dead on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. A national day of mourning was called by the incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Martin Luther King was one of the greatest men in American history. The world watched on in awe as he stood proudly as a gentleman and began to overturn centuries of prejudice, segregation and oppression. There is no finer example of what a man can achieve by being a gentleman and putting the needs of others ahead of his own.