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January 10, 2006 > Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Linda Stone

Born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most visible advocates of using nonviolence as a means for social change. The son and grandson of Baptist ministers, he followed in their footsteps. Attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University, he deepened his understanding of his faith and learned about nonviolent strategies from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King received a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955.

Both Gandhi and King were influenced by Henry David Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience." King stated that using violence was "both impractical and immoral," and that nonviolent protest was "the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

King met Coretta Scott while in Boston. She was attending New England Conservatory of Music, earning a Bachelor of Music. They married in 1953 and the following year he became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

While at the church, King became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which had been formed by a group of black ministers and community leaders in response to the arrest of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955 for failing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus.

Jo Anne Robinson, president of the Women's Political Council, and E.D. Nixon of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), planned a one day boycott of Montgomery busses on Dec. 5. MIA was established to oversee the continuation of the boycott which lasted for a year until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's ruling in Browder vs. Gayle finding segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional. The campaign was successful; focused the nation on segregation issues in the South and propelled a young King into the limelight.

Over 90 percent of the black community participated in the boycott which led to a larger ongoing protest. MIA's mission was to "improve the general status of Montgomery, to improve race relations, and to uplift the general tenor of the community," a goal that went beyond the one-day bus boycott. The association created a list of demands that included courteous treatment by bus drivers and employment of black drivers. During the year of the boycott, MIA organized carpools and held weekly gatherings and sermons and worked on legal issues with the NAACP maintaining the city's new bus ordinances, raising money from civil right's organizations and donations from community members.
Declared a success, MIA's methods of nonviolent protesting became a model for other civil right's campaigns of that era.

Although Rosa Parks is well-known for her role in an event thought to be responsible for the collapse of segregation, others before her had also been arrested for not complying with the law. Nine months before Parks' arrest, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, a high school student, was also arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. And 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested seven months later for the same thing. When Parks was arrested however, it was the spark that inflamed the black community into a unified challenge of bus segregation.

King left Montgomery in 1960 to become co-pastor of his father's church in Atlanta but MIA continued to campaign on issues of voter registration and school integration, becoming one of the founding organizations for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Throughout the 60s, many black college students began protesting discriminatory practices leading to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This student-led group eventually organized "Freedom Rides" in May 1961 to challenge unconstitutional interstate bus and bus terminal segregation laws.

In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that segregation of interstate travel was illegal. Although King did not ride on the buses that traveled from Washington, D.C. to Montgomery, Alabama, he supported the effort. However, he questioned the safety of the campaign after the riders encountered violent white protesters in Rockhill, S.C. who beat two students and arrested another for using a white bathroom. In comments to Jet reporter Simeon Booker, King said, "You will never make it through Alabama."

The incident in South Carolina created a media frenzy that continued throughout the rides. By the time they reached Anniston, Alabama, a mob of over 100 people was waiting. The Ku Klux Klan received permission by local authorities to strike out against the Freedom Riders without fear of arrest. The bus was firebombed, forcing passengers into the angry white mob. Police offered no protection. As a result, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) member James Farmer ended the ride.

Freedom Riders ventured out again a few days later when 10 people rode from Nashville to Birmingham. They were unable to complete the ride, arrested for defying segregation laws and unable to find a bus driver. The group was stranded until Attorney General Robert Kennedy intervened, demanding that the Greyhound Company supply a driver. They left the next day with not only a driver but a full police escort to the Montgomery city line. Local police in Montgomery were assigned to meet them to continue the escort but never showed up. When they reached the bus terminal, riders were beaten by a white mob. Police showed up and served the riders with an injunction to bar them from continuing their ride in Alabama.

When King heard of the incident, he went to Montgomery and staged a rally at a church. Blaming the governor for "aiding and abetting the forces of violence," he called for federal intervention stating that "the federal government must not stand idly by while blood thirsty mobs beat nonviolent students with impunity." Calling upon the Attorney General, he was assured that people inside the church would be protected. National Guard troops used tear gas to disperse a mob. This intervention by the federal government propelled the desegregation issue into the national spotlight and on May 29, 1961, the Kennedy administration announced that it had directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in all facilities.

Rides continued as students from around the country began buying bus tickets to the South. Response of the federal government and national attention on nonviolent protests reinforced King's contention that nonviolent activism worked.

By 1963 mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, a city known for violent opposition to integration by its police force, were led by SCLC and King. The result of the confrontations brought more media attention and caught the attention of President Kennedy who said "...who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay? I shall ask the Congress to make a commitment that has not been fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life." He submitted civil rights legislation to Congress which eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Demonstrations continued and in the summer of 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 250,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, putting more pressure on the Kennedy administration to support legislation on civil rights.

As King gained prominence as an activist, Time Magazine hailed him as "Man of the Year" in 1963 and he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But along the way, he came under heavy criticism from other black leaders, leading to deep divisions within the community. He also faced efforts by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to weaken his powerbase.

On April 3, 1968, King went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers and delivered his last speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop" when he said:

"We got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. 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."

The next day, he was assassinated while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.

As news of his death spread around the nation, racial violence exploded in over 125 cities in 28 states. Thousands of troops were sent by President Lyndon Johnson to disperse crowds and enforce curfews. By April 23, 46 people were dead and 2,600 injured.

During his lifetime, King sought to build a common ground on which all people could join together to address important community issues such as alleviating poverty and to acknowledge dignity and respect for all people. It was in this spirit that a national holiday was declared in his honor in 1986.

Local events for MLK Day:

Monday, January 16
Birthday Celebration
6:30 - 8 p.m.
Featuring the Tennyson High School Chorus and Jazz band. Art & Essay winners announced.
Centennial Hall
22292 Foothill Blvd., Hayward
(510) 583-4300

Monday, January 16
March of Witness
9:30 a.m.
A reading of Dr. King's works and group singing.
City Hall Plaza
777 B St., Hayward
(510) 581-2060

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