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January 9, 2007 > Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day

By Pushpa Warrier

If you can't be a pine on the top of a hill
Be a scrub in the valley-but be
The best little scrub on the side of the hill,
Be a bush if you can't be a tree.

If you can't be a highway just be a trail;
If you can't be the sun, be a star.
It isn't by size that you win or fail;
Be the best of whatever you are.
Martin Luther King, Jr. 04/09/1967

Martin Luther King, Junior's birthday, Jan. 15, is a national holiday, celebrated each year with educational programs, artistic displays, and concerts throughout the United States.
In the struggle for civil rights in America, King is the primary icon. Prime mover of the Montgomery bus boycott; keynote speaker at the March on Washington; youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate; all of this and more accrued to King before his untimely murder in 1968.

But in retrospect, single events are less important than the fact that King, and his policy of non-violent protest, was the dominant force in the civil rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement, from 1957 to 1968.

Born Michael Luther King in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929, he was one of three children of Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta King, a former schoolteacher. (He was renamed "Martin" when he was about 6 years old.).

After attending local grammar and high schools, King enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. He wasn't planning to enter the ministry, but met Dr. Benjamin Mays, a scholar whose manner and bearing convinced him that a religious career could be intellectually satisfying.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1948, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., winning the Plafker Award as outstanding student of the graduating class, and the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship as well. King completed the coursework for his doctorate in 1953, and was granted the degree two years later upon completion of his dissertation.

Married by then, King returned to the south as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Here, he made his first mark on the civil rights movement, by mobilizing the black community during a 382-day boycott of the city's bus lines. King overcame arrest and other violent harassment, including the bombing of his home. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.

A national hero and a civil-rights figure of growing importance, King convened a meeting with a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was elected its president, and soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.

After completing his first book and returning from a trip to India, King, in 1960, became co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Three years later, King's nonviolent tactics were put to their most severe test in Birmingham, during a mass protest of unfair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities. Police brutality used against the marchers dramatized the plight of black people with enormous impact. King was arrested, but his voice was not silenced: He wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to refute his critics.

Later that year, King was a principal speaker at the historic March on Washington, where he delivered his passionate, signature sermon, "I Have a Dream." Time magazine designated him as its Person of the Year for 1963. A few months later he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.

When he returned from Norway, where he received the award, King took on new challenges. In Selma, Ala., he led a voter-registration campaign that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery Freedom March. King next brought his crusade to Chicago, launching programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide decent housing.

Death came for King April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel just off Beale Street. King was shot in the neck by a rifle bullet. A white-separatist named James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder. King's death triggered a wave of violence in major cities across the country, an antithesis of his lifelong commitment to non-violent intervention.

However, King's legacy has lived on. In 1969, his widow, Coretta Scott King, organized the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change. Today it stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed, is now the National Civil Rights Museum.

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