BLACK HISTORY MONTH
“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” – Martin Luther King –
MARTIN LUTHER KING was born the second child of Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, and Alberta Williams King, a former schoolteacher. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929. Along with his older sister, Willie Christine King (the future Christine King Farris) (born 1927), and younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King (1930-1969), he grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood, then home to some of the most prominent and prosperous African Americans in the country.
King’s legal name at birth was Michael King, and his father was also born Michael King, but the elder King changed his and his son’s names (when King was 5) following a 1934 trip to Germany to attend the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. It was during this time he chose to be called Martin Luther King in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther. King had Irish ancestry through his paternal great-grandfather.
When King was a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family’s home. When the boys were 6, they attended different schools, with King attending a segregated school for African-Americans. King then lost his friend because the child’s father no longer wanted them to play together.
King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind. King liked singing and music. King’s mother, an accomplished organist and choir leader, took him to various churches to sing. He received attention for singing “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus.” King later became a member of the junior choir in his church.
King said his father regularly whipped him until he was fifteen and a neighbor reported hearing the elder King telling his son “he would make something of him even if he had to beat him to death.” King saw his father’s proud and unafraid protests in relation to segregation, such as King Sr. refusing to listen to a traffic policeman after being referred to as “boy” or stalking a store with his son when being told by a shoe clerk that they would have to move to the rear to be served.
King suffered from depression throughout much of his life. In his adolescent years, he initially felt some resentment against whites due to the “racial humiliation” that he, his family, and his neighbors often had to endure in the segregated South. When King was 12, he attended a parade against his parents’ wishes. His maternal grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack that day. King blamed himself for her death, because his six-year old little brother A.D., whom he was supposed to be home watching, accidentally knocked their grandmother unconscious while sliding down a bannister. Young Martin did not know the unconsciousness was unrelated to the heart attack. Associating his absence with the tragic turn of events, Martin attempted suicide by jumping from a second-story window in his family home, but survived. His father later reported that the boy was distraught for days, unable to sleep. A sign of his love for his grandmother, presaged the bouts of depression.
King was originally skeptical of many of Christianity’s claims. At the age of thirteen, he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school. From this point, he stated, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly”. However, he later concluded that the Bible has “many profound truths which one cannot escape” and decided to enter the seminary.
Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. He became known for his public speaking ability and was part of the school’s debate team. King became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal in 1942 at age 13. During his junior year, he won first prize in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks Club in Dublin, Georgia. Returning home to Atlanta by bus, he and his teacher were ordered by the driver to stand so white passengers could sit down. King refused initially, but complied after his teacher informed him that he would be breaking the law if he did not go along with the order. He later characterized this incident as “the angriest I have ever been in my life”.
A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades of high school. It was during King’s junior year that Morehouse College announced it would accept any high school juniors who could pass its entrance exam. At that time, most of the students had abandoned their studies to participate in World War II. Due to this, the school became desperate to fill in classrooms. At age 15, King passed the exam and entered Morehouse College.
When King was 15, and again when he was 18, he worked summers harvesting tobacco in Simsbury, Connecticut, not far from Hartford. His experience as a middle-class son of a prominent black family from Atlanta’s prosperous “Sweet” Auburn Avenue, performing menial labor in Yankee territory helped shape his future. “On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see,” he wrote his father in astonishment. “After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.” In a correspondence to his mother, he continued the theme, “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there.” The fact that King could not enjoy such freedoms in most of his native Deep South inspired him to become a man of the cloth.
The summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, an eighteen-year-old King made the choice to enter the ministry after he concluded the church offered the most assuring way to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity”. King’s “inner urge” had begun developing and he made peace with the Baptist Church, as he believed he would be a “rational” minister with sermons that were “a respectful force for ideas, even social protest.”
In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951. King’s father fully supported his decision to continue his education. King was joined in attending Crozer by Walter McCall, a former classmate at Morehouse. At Crozer, King was elected president of the student body. The African-American students of Crozer for the most part conducted their social activity on Edwards Street. King was endeared to the street due to a classmate having an aunt that prepared the two collard greens, which they both relished.
King once called out a student for keeping beer in his room because of their shared responsibility as African-Americans to bear “the burdens of the Negro race.” For a time, he was interested in Walter Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel.”
In his third year there, he became romantically involved with the daughter of an immigrant German woman named Betty, working as a cook in the cafeteria. The daughter had been involved with a professor prior to her relationship with King. King had plans of marrying her, but was advised not to by friends due to the reaction an interracial relationship would spark from both blacks and whites, as well as the chances of it destroying his chances of ever pastoring a church in the South. King’s father would frown upon the interracial romance of a son he was grooming for a successor role in the pulpit. Not only would the relationship have been taboo in King’s native Atlanta, but even had King chosen to pastor in the North (and further disappoint his father), MLK Sr. would have still viewed the cafeteria worker as below his son’s station. Daddy King was dead set against his oldest son “marrying down.” King tearfully told a friend that he could not endure his mother’s pain over such a marriage and broke the relationship off around six months later. He would continue to have lingering feelings, with one friend being quoted as saying, “He never recovered.”
The senior King was not all that enamored with his son’s next matrimonial choice of conservatory student Coretta Scott, either, as his arranged choice of a bride for Martin Jr. was opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs, whose father founded the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League. But, King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. They became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (b. 1955), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963). During their marriage, King limited Coretta’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, expecting her to be a housewife and mother. Reportedly, his wife, Coretta Scott, was disillusioned with their relationship because of his relations with other women.
King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was twenty-five years old, in 1954.
1956 On January 26, MLK was arrested as part of a “Get Tough” campaign to intimidate the bus boycotters. On January 30, his home is bombed. He applied for a firearms permit during a period when his home and several Montgomery churches were bombed. He was more concerned family man than pacifist. It was not until later, according to King’s own writings that he decided he could not advocate nonviolent resistance while resorting to armed self-defense.
He successfully pleads for calm to a vengeful crowd of neighbors gathered outside his home. On November 13, the Supreme Court rules that bus segregation is illegal. After black Montgomery walked for more than one year as part of the boycott, on the morning of December 21, MLK is one of the first passengers to ride on the newly integrated buses.
1958 MLK’s first book, “Stride Toward Freedom”, is published on September 17. On Sept. 20, 1958, 29-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, signing copies of “Stride Toward Freedom,” his account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which he spear-headed and is nearly killed when he is stabbed by an assailant. Izola Curry, a well-dressed 42-year-old woman, approached the reverend and, apparently deranged, suddenly started screaming and asked if it was really him. When he replied yes, she said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and plunged a letter opener into his chest. She’d developed delusions about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When police arrived on the scene, they found the civil rights leader sitting in a chair with the letter opener’s ivory handle still protruding just below his collar. Fearful of the blade’s proximity to King’s heart, Officer Al Howard warned him, “Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak.” While his assailant was taken into custody, King was carefully rushed to Harlem Hospital, where chief of thoracic and vascular surgery John W.V. Cordice, Jr. and trauma surgeon Emil Naclero were quickly summoned. King’s life was saved.
Along with other civil rights leaders, King meets on June 23 with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to discuss problems affecting black Americans.
1959 MLK and Coretta make a pilgrimage to India on February 2 and spend a month there as the guests of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to study Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and to pay homage at his shrine. On November 29, MLK announces his resignation, effective January 1, as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to concentrate on civil rights work full time. He moves to Atlanta to direct the activities of the SCLC.
1960 On January 20, MLK moves to Atlanta and becomes co-pastor, with his father, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Lunch counter sit-ins begin on February 1 in Greensboro, North Carolina. In Atlanta, on October 19, MLK is arrested during a sit-in while waiting to be served at a restaurant. He is sentenced to four months in jail, but after intervention by then presidential candidate John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, MLK is released. On a tape found in a Tennessee attic in 2012, which recorded part of a phone call made to his wife, King revealed that he did not entirely credit the Kennedys for his release from prison. He said: “The Kennedy family did have some part … in the release. But I must make it clear that many other forces worked to bring it about also.”
1961 On May 4, soon after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in interstate transportation, Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) demonstrators begin the first Freedom Ride through the South, traveling as a racially mixed group on a Greyhound bus. On December 15, MLK arrives in Albany, Georgia, at the request of the leader of the Albany protest, to desegregate public facilities there. The following day, at a demonstration attended by seven hundred protesters, MLK is arrested for obstructing the sidewalk and parading without a permit.
1962 Following the unsuccessful Albany, Georgia, movement, MLK is tried and convicted on July 10 for leading the march the previous December. He is arrested again on July 27 and jailed for holding a prayer vigil in Albany. He leaves jail on August 10 and agrees to halt demonstrations there. On October 16, he meets with President Kennedy at the White House.
1963 Sit-in demonstrations begin in February in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 3, the Birmingham campaign is officially launched. On Good Friday, April 12, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor arrests MLK and Ralph Abernathy for demonstrating without a permit. During the days he spends jailed, MLK writes his historic “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
On April 19, MLK and Abernathy are released on bond. During May 2-7, Birmingham police use fire hoses and dogs against the Children’s Crusade. More than one thousand demonstrators, mostly high school students, are jailed. Two days later, the Birmingham agreement is announced. The stores, restaurants, and schools will be desegregated; hiring of blacks implemented; and charges dropped against the protesters.
The day after the settlement is reached, segregationists bomb the Gaston Motel where MLK was staying. On May 13, federal troops arrive in Birmingham. The Birmingham protests prove to be the turning point in the war to end legal segregation in the South. On June 11, President Kennedy announces new civil rights legislation. Kennedy is the first U.S. president to say publicly that segregation is legally and morally wrong.
On June 23, MLK leads 125,000 people on a Freedom Walk in Detroit. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28 is the largest civil rights demonstration in history with nearly 250,000 marchers. MLK leads the march for Jobs and Freedom. The demonstrators demand an end to state-supported segregation and equal job opportunities. At the march, MLK makes his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech. On September 15 in Birmingham, a dynamite blast kills four black girls attending Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. MLK delivers the eulogy for the four girls on September 22.
President Kennedy is assassinated on November 22.
1964 On January 3, MLK appears on the cover of Time magazine as its Man of the Year. MLK is arrested protesting for the integration of public accommodations in St. Augustine, Florida, on June 11. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—three civil rights workers who tried to register black voters during the Freedom Summer—are reported missing on June 21.
MLK attends the signing ceremony of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the White House on July 2. The FBI finds the bodies of the slain civil rights workers buried not far from Philadelphia, Mississippi. On December 10, at age thirty-five, MLK becomes the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
1965 On February 2, MLK is arrested in Selma, Alabama, during a voting rights demonstration. Marching demonstrators are beaten at the Pettus Bridge by state highway patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies on March 7. In reaction to the brutal beatings, President Johnson addresses the nation, describes the voting right act he will submit to Congress, and uses the slogan made famous by the civil rights movement: “We Shall Overcome.”
Federal troops are mobilized on March 21-25 to protect more than three thousand protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery. MLK, who led the march, addresses a crowd of more than twenty-five thousand supporters in front of the Cradle of the Confederacy, the Alabama State Capitol. On August 6, the 1965 Voting Rights Act is signed by President Johnson and MLK is given one of the pens.
1966 On January 22, MLK moves into a Chicago tenement to attract attention to the living conditions of the poor. In the spring, he tours Alabama to help elect black officials under the newly passed Voting Rights Act. On July 10, MLK initiates an effort to make Chicago an open city in regard to housing. James Meredith is shot during MLK’s March against Fear, on June 6. MLK and others continue the march. On August 5, as he leads a march through Chicago, MLK is stoned by a crowd of angry whites.
1967 On April 4, MLK delivers his first public antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church. On April 15, in the shadow of the United Nations building, he delivers a speech against the war in Vietnam in what turns into the largest peace protest in the history of the country.
The Justice Department reports that as of July 6 more than 50 percent of all the eligible black voters are now registered to vote in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The Supreme Court upholds a conviction of MLK by a Birmingham court for demonstrating without a permit. Starting October 30, MLK spends four days in a Birmingham jail. On November 27, MLK announces the inception of the Poor People’s Campaign focusing on jobs and freedom for the poor of all races.
1968 MLK announces that the Poor People’s Campaign will culminate in a march on Washington to demand a $12 billion Economic Bill of Rights guaranteeing employment to the able-bodied, incomes to those unable to work, and an end to housing discrimination. The Poor People’s Campaign was an ambitious effort to draw attention to the issue of poverty in 1968. On March 18, MLK speaks to sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, and agrees to support them.
On March 28, MLK leads a march that turns violent. He is appalled by the violence but vows to march again after the protestors learn discipline. King was hesitant to make personal visits to Memphis to champion the striking, predominantly black sanitation workers there. Setbacks in the Poor People’s Campaign also contributed to some degree of depression and disillusionment for King. On April 3, MLK delivers the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Memphis Masonic Temple. “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” At sunset on April 4, sniper James Earl Ray fatally shoots MLK as the civil rights leader stands on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Ray is later convicted for the murder, which sparks riots and disturbances in 130 U.S. cities and results in 20,000 arrests. MLK’s funeral, on April 9 in Atlanta, is an international event, and his coffin is carried on a mule cart followed by more than 50,000 mourners. Within a week of the assassination, the Open Housing Act is passed by Congress.
1986 On November 2, MLK’s birthday, January 15, is declared a national holiday.
2011 The dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial takes place in Washington, D.C., August 26-28.
MLK Jr. died not only without financial assets, but without a will. King died intestate. Although his wife Coretta had admonished him for years to set some funds aside for the higher education of their four children, King left his family with no appreciable benefits from his five books, hundreds of speaking engagements, his ministry, and of most concern to his wife, the $54,600 he earned as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. While Mrs. King thought some of the award money should be invested for the children’s sake, her husband donated the funds to the movement.
King viewed his own financial sacrifice as a vow of relative poverty. In keeping with this ethos, King’s funeral procession featured not Cadillacs or Lincoln limousines, but a humble casket drawn by a mule carriage representative of his final mission, the Poor People’s Campaign. It was activists such as Harry Belafonte who raised money to ensure that the King children were supported through childhood and educated. The absence of a will has led to many court battles over the use and intellectual property of the leader’s written speeches, his image, recordings, and his literary works. Some related disputes have engendered rifts among King’s then-four surviving children (Yolanda died in 2008), and other close relatives.
During the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years. Dr. King is widely regarded as America’s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence and one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history!