Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is considered the formative figure in the modern fight for civil rights, and his legacy looms large in the work of all those who follow him in his cause. Dr. King’s involvement with the NAACP dates back to his position on the executive committee of the NAACP Montgomery Branch in the 1950’s, through his leadership in the various boycotts, marches and rallies of the 1960’s, and up until his assassination in 1968. In 1957 the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal, its most prestigious honor. In 1964, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Dr. King pushed America to fulfill its promise of equal rights for all. We honor his life and his legacy by recommitting ourselves to keeping his dream alive.
“I have come to see more and more that one of the most decisive steps that the Negro can take is that little walk to the voting booth. That is an important step. We’ve got to gain the ballot, and through that gain, political power.”
– NAACP Emancipation Day Rally, January 1, 1957
Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. As a child he never failed to ask discerning questions about the world around him. Though his father was a reverend, King initially had many doubts about the Christian religion, and it was only after years of schooling that he became convinced that religion could be both “intellectually and emotionally satisfying.” (Source: http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/nov_dec_09_scofield) King graduated at the top of his class from Morehouse College and moved on to Boston University where he earned his Ph.D. in systematic theology.
In June 1953 King married Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. The following year King, now finished with his religious education, followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a pastor for the Drexel Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience… But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
– Montgomery, Alabama, December 5, 1955
When King arrived in Montgomery he saw a city that was highly segregated. One of the “Jim Crow” laws required the first four rows on public buses to be reserved for white people, while “colored” riders had to sit in the back of the bus. On December 1, 1955, barely a year after King’s arrival, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP refused to move from her seat in the front of the bus. Rosa Parks was arrested and sent to jail, but her act of defiance inspired the burgeoning civil rights movement in Montgomery. The Montgomery Improvement Association was formed with the NAACP Executive Committee and officers of the Montgomery NAACP, which had at that point been banned in the state. The Association led a boycott of the bus system, and King, already a member of the NAACP’s executive committee, was chosen as its leader.
The boycott lasted for over a year, during which time King was threatened, arrested and even had his house bombed. However, by December 1956 the MIA had won a clear victory – the United States District Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that racial segregation on buses was unconstitutional.
“The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption.”
– The Power of Nonviolence, 1957
Emboldened by his success in Montgomery and a rise to national prominence, in 1957 King joined other civil rights activists to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was elected president. Inspired by the ideals of nonviolence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, he promoted civil disobedience as the best method to fight for civil rights. The SCLC led sit-ins and marches for various local causes, all with the aim to end segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters. Though the protesters did their best to remain peaceful, they were occasionally met with violence from authorities, and King was arrested multiple times. Throughout this, King’s profile continued to grow.
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
King was arrested during a rally in Birmingham that sought to end segregation at lunch counters. While in jail he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which defended his views on racial justice and nonviolence. It was considered the “manifesto” of the civil rights movement (Source: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-bio.html) and further inspired black Americans to join the cause. At this point King was one of the national leaders of a movement that was rapidly growing across the nation, and in 1963 King joined with other leaders to capitalize on the moment with an enormous rally for civil rights.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
– “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963
The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a collaborative effort by the major civil rights groups and icons of the day, including A. Phillip Randolph, the renowned labor leader who originally conceived of such a march, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP. Feeding off of a rapidly growing tide of grassroots support and outrage over the nation’s racial inequities, the rally drew over 260,000 people from across the nation. King’s celebrated speech, “I Have a Dream”, was carried live by television stations across the country. “I Have a Dream” is remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, speech of the 20th century.
“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.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
– “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963
It didn’t take long for King’s dream to come to fruition. After a decade of continued lobbying of Congress and the President led by the NAACP, plus other peaceful protests for civil rights, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One year later, he signed the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together, these laws outlawed discrimination against blacks and women, effectively ending segregation, and sought to end disenfranchisement by making discriminatory voting practices illegal. Ten years after King joined the civil rights fight, the campaign to secure the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had achieved its goal – to ensure that black citizens would have the power to represent themselves in government.
“They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies. But all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.'”
– “Our God is Marching On!”, March 25, 1965
Of course, the fight was not over. Over the next few years King continued to lead marches and rallies across the country. In 1965 King helped organize three marches to the Alabama state capitol to protest continued voting rights violations. The first march ended in violence, as police used tear gas and billy clubs against the peaceful protestors. Undeterred by “Bloody Sunday”, the activists marched twice more and finally reached the capitol in an emotional validation of their rights on March 25.
“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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
– “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, April 3, 1968
During this period King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the American Liberties Medallion by the American Jewish Committee. He broadened his focus and began to speak out against the Vietnam War and the economic injustice that plagued the nation. King was concerned that the United States government was spending money on a wasteful war while it should have been directed toward programs to help the nation’s poorest citizens.
In early April, 1968, King visited Memphis, Tennessee to support the local black sanitary public works union. On April 4, King was shot to death by James Earl Ray in his hotel in Memphis. President Johnson called a national day of mourning on April 7. In 1983 Congress cemented King’s legacy as an American icon by declaring the third Monday of every January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“If you give your life to a cause in which you believe, and if it is right and just, and if your life comes to an end as a result of this, then your life could not have been spent in a more redemptive way. I think that is what my husband has done.”
– Coretta Scott King, April 9, 1968
Dr. King’s legacy has inspired civil rights activists for the past forty years, and will continue to do so as long as there is injustice in the world. Organizations like the NAACP have carried on his work on behalf of all people of color, and have endeavored to keep his dream alive for future generations. We can always look to Dr. King’s actions – and, especially, his words – to remind us of what we are fighting for and why we must continue to fight. If we ever get sidetracked or discouraged, we can remember Dr. King’s closing remarks at the NAACP Emancipation Day Rally in 1957:
“I close by saying there is nothing greater in all the world than freedom. It’s worth going to jail for. It’s worth losing a job for. It’s worth dying for. My friends, go out this evening determined to achieve this freedom which God wants for all of His children.”