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Martin Luther King Jr. Essay, Research Paper



One of the world’s best known advocates of non-violent

social change strategies, Martin Luther King, Jr., synthesized

ideas drawn from many different cultural traditions. Born in

Atlanta on January 15, 1929, King’s roots were in the African-

American Baptist church. He was the grandson of the Rev. A. D.

Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church and a founder of

Atlanta’s NAACP chapter, and the son of Martin Luther King, Sr.,

who succeeded Williams as Ebenezer’s pastor and also became a

civil rights leader. Although, from an early age, King resented

religious emotionalism and questioned literal interpretations of

scripture, he nevertheless greatly admired black social gospel

proponents such as his father who saw the church as a instrument

for improving the lives of African Americans. Morehouse College

president Benjamin Mays and other proponents of Christian social

activism influenced King’s decision after his junior year at

Morehouse to become a minister and thereby serve society. His

continued skepticism, however, shaped his subsequent theological

studies at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania,

and at Boston University, where he received a doctorate in

systematic theology in 1955. Rejecting offers for academic

positions, King decided while completing his Ph. D. requirements

to return to the South and accepted the pastorate of Dexter

Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

On December 5, 1955, five days after Montgomery civil rights

activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city’s rules mandating

segregation on buses, black residents launched a bus boycott and

elected King as president of the newly-formed Montgomery

Improvement Association. As the boycott continued during 1956,

King gained national prominence as a result of his exceptional

oratorical skills and personal courage. His house was bombed and

he was convicted along with other boycott leaders on charges of

conspiring to interfere with the bus company’s operations.

Despite these attempts to suppress the movement, Montgomery bus

were desegregated in December, 1956, after the United States

Supreme Court declared Alabama’s segregation laws

unconstitutional. In 1957, seeking to build upon the success of

the Montgomery boycott movement, King and other southern black

ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

(SCLC). As SCLC’s president, King emphasized the goal of black

voting rights when he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the

1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. During 1958, he published his

first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The

following year, he toured India, increased his understanding of

Gandhian non-violent strategies. At the end of 1959, he resigned

from Dexter and returned to Atlanta where the SCLC headquarters

was located and where he also could assist his father as pastor

of Ebenezer. Although increasingly portrayed as the pre-eminent

black spokesperson, King did not mobilize mass protest activity

during the first five years after the Montgomery boycott ended.

While King moved cautiously, southern black college students took

the initiative, launching a wave of sit-in protests during the

winter and spring of 1960. King sympathized with the student

movement and spoke at the founding meeting of the Student

Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960, but he

soon became the target of criticisms from SNCC activists

determined to assert their independence. Even King’s decision in

October, 1960, to join a student sit-in in Atlanta did not allay

the tensions, although presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s

sympathetic telephone call to King’s wife, Coretta Scott King,

helped attract crucial black support for Kennedy’s successful

campaign. The 1961 “Freedom Rides,” which sought to integrate

southern transportation facilities, demonstrated that neither

King nor Kennedy could control the expanding protest movement

spearheaded by students. Conflicts between King and younger

militants were also evident when both SCLC and SNCC assisted the

Albany (Georgia) Movement’s campaign of mass protests during

December of 1961 and the summer of 1962.

After achieving few of his objectives in Albany, King recognized

the need to organize a successful protest campaign free of

conflicts with SNCC. During the spring of 1963, he and his staff

guided mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where local

white police officials were known from their anti-black

attitudes. Clashes between black demonstrators and police using

police dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines through

the world. In June, President Kennedy reacted to the Birmingham

protests and the obstinacy of segregationist Alabama Governor

George Wallace by agreed to submit broad civil rights legislation

to Congress (which eventually passed the Civil Rights Act of

1964). Subsequent mass demonstrations in many communities

culminated in a march on August 28, 1963, that attracted more

than 250,000 protesters to Washington, D. C. Addressing the

marchers from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered

his famous “I Have a Dream” oration. During the year following

the March, King’s renown grew as he became Time magazine’s Man of

the Year and, in December 1964, the recipient of the Nobel Peace

Prize. Despite fame and accolades, however, King faced many

challenges to his leadership. Malcolm X’s (1927-1965) message of

self-defense and black nationalism expressed the discontent and

anger of northern, urban blacks more effectively than did King’s

moderation. During the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, King and

his lieutenants were able to keep intra-movement conflicts

sufficiently under control to bring about passage of the 1965

Voting Rights Act, but while participating in a 1966 march

through Mississippi, King encountered strong criticism from

“Black Power” proponent Stokely Carmichael. Shortly afterward

white counter-protesters in the Chicago area physically assaulted

King in the Chicago area during an unsuccessful effort to

transfer non-violent protest techniques to the urban North.

Despite these leadership conflicts, King remained committed to

the use of non-violent techniques. Early in 1968, he initiated a

Poor Peoples campaign designed to confront economic problems that

had not been addressed by early civil rights reforms.

King’s effectiveness in achieving his objectives was limited

not merely by divisions among blacks, however, but also by the

increasing resistance he encountered from national political

leaders. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s already extensive efforts

to undermine King’s leadership were intensified during 1967 as

urban racial violence escalated and King criticized American

intervention in the Vietnam war. King had lost the support of

many white liberals, and his relations with the Lyndon Johnson

administration were at a low point when he was assassinated on

April 4, 1968, while seeking to assist a garbage workers’ strike

in Memphis. After his death, King remained a controversial symbol

of the African-American civil rights struggle, revered by many

for his martyrdom on behalf of non-violence and condemned by

others for his militancy and insurgent views.

It’s been 31 years since that Thursday afternoon when a man

launched a bullet in a modest neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., and

found his mark standing on a motel balcony. The shot hit Dr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the neck. He slumped to the balcony

floor and died two hours later. As a nation conditioned to five-

and 10-year commemorations, we haven’t paid much attention to the

anniversary of his death in the intervening years. But despite

the absence of conspicuous memorials, April 4 should be

remembered for its indelible imprint on history. It was, after

all, yet another day that will live in infamy, for it was the day

the dreamer died.

It’s been 31 years since that Thursday afternoon when a man

launched a bullet in a modest neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., and

found his mark standing on a motel balcony. The shot hit Dr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the neck. He slumped to the balcony

floor and died two hours later. As a nation conditioned to five-

and 10-year commemorations, we haven’t paid much attention to the

anniversary of his death in the intervening years. But despite

the absence of conspicuous memorials, April 4 should be

remembered for its indelible imprint on history. It was, after

all, yet another day that will live in infamy, for it was the day

the dreamer died. The dream — of content over packaging, of

equal regard and equal opportunity, of a nation living up to the

true meaning of its creed — may yet survive, but it has never

since found so splendid a voice as King’s. His were the words

that gave the idea logic. His was the rhythm that made the

thought dance so gracefully. His was the diplomacy to, at once,

call us on the carpet for what we had done wrong without implying

that we deserved no good faith, without telling us we were

incorrigible.

Implicit in King’s dream-weaving — beyond the dream itself –

was the sublime notion that it was all possible. That we could do

it. That a dream, it may have been, but not a fantasy.

But the events of April 4, 1968, broke the hopeful spell and,

suddenly, the difficult, beleaguered work of making a dream real

seemed utterly futile, if not naive. Why bother with patience and

prayerfulness and contemplation when even they are despised to

the point of murder? The civil rights movement, such as it is,

has never been the same. No one has been able to replicate King’s

charisma or inherit his disciples. There is not even the cohesion

of spirit there once was. What progress there has been since

King’s assassination has had the woeful effect of dulling the

senses and disguising the truth so that some actually believe

there is no Great Dream to hold anymore, only millions of

personal ones. Personal responsibility, self-determination and

empowerment for the disenfranchised are today’s popular battle

cries, as if they are new alternatives to “overcoming,” when, in

truth, they are vintage principles, long and widely practiced.

Although the virtues are doubtlessly productive — and it never

hurts to re-emphasize them — the movement must not take them up

as its only weapons against discrimination and duality because

there remains a society to be held accountable. The air is still

fouled with collective bigotry and ignorance. Doors are still

closed, as are minds, and applicants for the dream are still too

often denied on the basis of errant and malefic presumption. Thus

is the dream disturbed, time and time again, and never finished.

As with the murdered Dr. King, the dreamer never finds out how

the


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