Like many students of the 1960s, the famous speeches of Dr Martin Luther King in the US civil rights struggle are well known to me. The man and his followers were heroes to millions for facing out and out hostile provocation, with a non-violent response, based on the teachings of Gandhi and a strong Christian belief.
However, some others once close to him abandoned that philosophy and took up arms to fight back and would later accuse him of being an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure, and of holding back the advancement of black people.
A few weeks ago I watched a documentary call ‘King in the Wilderness’ which detailed the last eighteen months of his life. In that time period, he was gradually being drawn into other struggles, that some argued were outside the civil rights remit. It appeared he just couldn’t say no to anyone who reached out to him. Among the campaigns he got involved with, included the housing situation in the poor parts of Chicago, trying to attain better wages and working conditions for the garbage men of Memphis and biggest of all, the war in Vietnam.
The programme was fleshed out by contributions by those once in his inner circle and fascinating footage of the events in those last few months. In that, King appeared to be mentally and physically exhausted by that stage in his life and that come as no surprise, what with his ridiculously busy schedule and the constant daily threat to his life. In fact, someone said on the programme that death may have felt like a release to all the pressure he was under.
I sat there watching it and nodded, if I’m honest.
He was born Michael Luther King Jr. in January 1929, to mum Alberta and father Michael King Sr. who later became pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His father changed his name to Martin in 1934, and subsequently changed the name on his son’s birth certificate also to Martin in 1957, when Jr. was 28.
Father had lead civil rights marches himself and so set in motion his sons thoughts on the struggles ahead. Martin Jr. was already steeped in the church, learning entire passages from the bible by a very young age. He was also a voracious reader, keen to expand his already enquiring mind.
A keen student, he also had an interest in looking well turned out, picking up the nickname ‘Tweedie’ due his liking for tweed suits and he was also admired for his dancing skills, with the jitterbug being a particular favourite of his.
However, the realities of his life were never far away. After winning a public speaking contest in 1944, he was made to stand up on the bus home by the driver, so that white passengers could sit down.
‘That night will never leave my memory’ he said later ‘it was the angriest I have ever been in my life.’
Also that year, he enrolled in Morehouse College aged 15. By 18 he chose to enter the ministry seeing the church as the answer to his ‘inner urge to serve humanity.’ King graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology in 1948, aged nineteen.
He then had a relationship with a white cook at the college and planned to marry her. He was advised however that an interracial marriage, especially for a would be pastor looking to practice in the South, would be a bad idea. He broke off the relationship, though it is said he never really got over it.
He later met and married Coretta Scott in 1953, going on to have four children. In 1954, then aged 25, he became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and also received his PHD degree in theology in 1955, thus becoming Doctor King.
In that year, he also began to expand his personal involvement in the civil rights movement and became central to the Montgomery bus boycott, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. The boycott lasted just over a year and King became a hate figure, suffering a bomb attack on his home. By the end of the campaign, he was known nationally and had become the main spokesman for the movement.
All this exposure however, marked him as a target and he was stabbed in 1958 at a book signing in Harlem, narrowly escaping death. He returned to Atlanta in 1959 to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist church.
Determined to press on with the campaign, King decided to trust his instincts, feeling that organised, nonviolent protests, would gain coverage in the media highlighting the continued struggles of the black population in the South of the US. He was right. Night after night, televised images of the brutal police tactics to counter any protests, showed up the injustices being suffered by many and they simply could not be ignored.
He continued to lead further marches in support of the right to vote, as well as many other high profile causes, many of which would later be passed into law in the mid 1960s, such as the Civil Rights of 1964.
Being arrested was now commonplace to him. After a ‘sit in’ in a segregated restaurant in Atlanta, he was sentenced to four months hard labour. Many feared for his life behind bars, however. Presidential candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy applied pressure on the local authorities and he was released within two days.
Arrested again in 1962 he chose jail for 45 days instead of paying a fine. The fine was discreetly paid by others, including preacher Billy Graham and King was released
In 1963, TV images showed the Birmingham Police dept. using dogs and water cannons upon protestors including many children, ordered to do so by Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor. The outcry was deafening. Conor lost his job, and slowly, local public places become easier to access to the black population of the area.
By now, King was a national figure. Then came the big one. The March on Washington. The leaders of various civil rights organisations joined forces and called on all to march to the nations capital on August 28th 1963 to highlight the continuing struggle. An estimated crowd of 250,000 people attended and they could be seen stretching out from the Lincoln Memorial as far as the eye could see.
During that day, King delivered his now famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
‘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 the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.’
That year the FBI began to tap his phones and kept him under surveillance to the end of his life.
A year later in 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
After achieving many eventual successes, including the marches on Washington and later Selma in 1965, King then joined the campaign for better housing in Chicago from 1966 and once again came up against fierce opposition from a deeply racist crowd. Indeed, he expressed that the threats and actual violence he received there, was more frightening and severe than that he had ever had in the South.
Still he continued. He publicly expressed his opposition to the war in Vietnam in 1967, bringing him into direct conflict with President Johnson, who had taken over from JFK following his assassination in November 1963. King’s view was that money spent on the war, could have been better used at home to improve the welfare of the people in the USA. Following the speech denouncing the US involvement in the conflict, he found himself isolated by many former friends. This left King, deeply hurt.
Still he ploughed on. March 1968 saw King in Memphis pledging his support to black public works employers during their ‘I Am A Man’ protest looking for equal rights and better pay.
On April 3rd that year, he gave his famous ‘I’ve Been To The Mountain Top ‘ speech, which is as powerful now as it was then.
‘And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over.
And 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. So 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…’
The next day, April 4th, King was shot and killed on the 2nd floor balcony of The Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder, though he later claimed he was framed. The autopsy mentioned that King had the heart of a 60 year old, said to be the result of the stress he was suffering from.
Martin Luther King was 39 years old
‘I would rather die today on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my own conscience.’
HIs legacy lives on; as does his name and long may that continue.
The Mumper of SE5
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