My VIP for this week is Martin Luther King, Jr., the black civil rights leader. As I write this post, Americans are enjoying a national holiday - a day off work or out of school - in his honor. Many cities, including Anchorage, are calling for today to be a day for service.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, as the second of three children born to his parents. He was the eldest son and was named after his father who was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. One of his grandfathers had also served as pastor at that church.
King did very well in high school, skipping the 9th and 12th grades and entering Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15. While at Morehouse, King decided to become a minister and was ordained just before he graduated in 1948. He earned a divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and then went to graduate school at Boston University. He graduated with a Ph.D. degree in theology.
While in Boston he met Coretta Scott, a music student. They married in 1953 and eventually had four children. King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954.
King began his civil rights activities in 1955 in connection with a protest of Montgomery's segregated bus system. Montgomery had a city law that required blacks to give up their seats on buses when white people wanted those seats or to sit in that row. One day in 1955 a black passenger named Rosa Parks decided to disobey that law. She was arrested for her disobedience.
Blacks were urged by black leaders in Montgomery to boycott the city's buses. An organization was formed to run the boycott, and King was chosen to be president of that organization. King insisted on nonviolent protests, but his own home was bombed. For over a year, thousands of blacks refused to use the buses. By orders from the United States Supreme Court in 1956, Montgomery was forced to provide equal, integrated seating on public buses.
King joined with other black ministers to expand the nonviolent struggle against racism and discrimination. At that time, segregation existed throughout the South in public schools, transportation, recreation, hotels, and restaurants. Some states deprived blacks of the right to vote.
In 1960 King moved to Atlanta and became co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father. In 1961, the civil rights movement picked up steam when black college students across the South began to push back. They sat at lunch counters and entered other facilities that refused to serve blacks. Massive demonstrations were launched in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial discriminations. Dogs and water hoses were used by police to drive back peaceful protesters, including children. A national outcry against segregation was the result of heavy news coverage. John F. Kennedy proposed a civil rights bill to Congress.
On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 people attended an event called the March on Washington. They gathered at the Lincoln Memorial where the high point was a speech by King. This stirring "I have a dream" speech defined the moral basis of the civil rights movement.
"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited racial discrimination in public places and called for equal opportunity in employment and education. King later received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize" (David J. Garrow, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, p 321).
In spite of the new legislation, white officials in Selma, Alabama, denied most black citizens the chance to register and vote. In a protest organized by King in 1965, several hundred protesters were attacked by police officers using tear gas and clubs to break up the group as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. This attack was broadcast nationwide and shocked the general public.
Lyndon B. Johnson requested a bill in Congress that would eliminate all barriers to Southern blacks' right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was soon passed by Congress, but violence continued against civil rights workers in the South.
In 1967 King enlarged his movement to include poverty. "He believed poverty was as great an evil as racism. He said that true social justice would require a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Thus, King began to plan a Poor People's Campaign that would unite poor people of all races in a struggle for economic opportunity. The campaign would demand a federal guaranteed annual income for poor people and other major antipoverty laws" (David J. Garrow, World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 11, p 323).
King also joined the growing anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. While supporting a strike of black garbage men in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. King's body was first buried at South View Cemetery in Atlanta and later moved near Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The following words from King's "I Have A Dream" speech are on his tombstone: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."
Shock, grief, and anger followed King's assassination. More than 100 cities in our nation experienced riots by black people. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited racial discrimination in the sale and rental of most housing in the United States. An area including King's birthplace, church and burial spot was made the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in 1980. Congress passed a law in 1983 designating the third Monday in January as a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.