Champion of the civil rights movement, Dr Martin Luther
King, Jr., helped to prick the conscience of a nation and,
though his determined efforts to focus attention on the injustice
of racial segregation and poverty, to bring about sweeping
social change not only in the United States but around the
King was born in the US state of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929,
the second eldest of four children born to Reverend Martin
Luther and Alberta King.
memorial statue of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. in the
United States. PICTURE: Richard Baker (www.istockphoto.com)
heart for a better world is summed up in his own words:
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom
by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must ever conduct ourselves our struggle on the
high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not
let our creative protest to degenerate into physical
violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic
heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
his high school years King displayed great academic prowess,
advancing to a college education without formally graduating
from high school.
He entered into the ministry at 19, ordained in 1948 at Ebenezer
Baptist Church in Atlanta. After pastoring in Montgomery,
Alabama, King went on to head up the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference and held other notable positions of responsibility.
From 1960-68 he was the assistant pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist
church alongside his father.
He married Coretta Scott in 1953 and later went on to raise
Between 1948 and 1955 King obtained degrees in Sociology,
Divinity and gained a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. His studies
also included a stint at Harvard University and would go on
to receive an extensive list of honorary degrees from universities
both nationally and internationally.
The civil rights movement
In 1955 came a defining moment in the civil rights movement,
and in King’s own life, when African-American Rosa Parks
refused to move to the black section of the racially segregated
bus and was taken into custody.
In response, King initiated a bus boycott which lasted a staggering
381 days. His actions proved successful, resulting in the
de-segregation of buses. The incident launched King onto the
national and international stage as a pivotal figure in the
movement for social justice.
Over the coming years, King drew upon his roots with the black
evanglical tradition, seeing Christianity as, in the words
of US pastor Wesley Roberts writing in The History of
Christianity, “a force that could transform not
only the individual but the whole of society”.
He was able to successfully integrate the message of Jesus
Christ (that of loving your neighbour) with Mahatma Gandhi’s
method of nonviolent resistance. It proved to be a potent
force against the unjust US system of racial segregation.
During the 13 years he lead the civil rights movement it was
characterized by its non-violent protests. King never resorted
to violence despite being arrested on 30 occasions for his
participation in civil rights activities.
King’s approach can be summed up in his own words: “We
shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity
to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with
soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue
to love you…”
The civil rights leader was a noted orator . Writing on the
40th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream”
address in London's Guardian newspaper, Gary Younge
stated that "words to him were like stone to a skilled
sculptor; raw material which he apparently effortlessly and
deftly chiseled away to mould, shape and define something
of aesthetic as well as practical value”.
King’s speeches captured the minds and hearts of his
audiences, serving as an inspiration not just for the generation
of his time but for generations struggling against oppression
His most famous speeches include the “I have a dream”
address of 1963, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in
1964 and the sermon "I’ve Been To The Mountain
Top" delivered in 1968.
The “I have a dream” address was part of a protest
by the civil rights movement in which King led a 250,000 strong
march on the US capital, Washington D.C., for jobs and freedom.
It was at a time where racial politics in the United States
was at flashpoint.
Accounts of the speech suggest it was not his greatest. Ironically
the speech would have ended prematurely without the famous
catch cry if it had not been for the encouragement of a fellow
civil rights supporter who urged King to continue on and to
share his future dream.
In 1968 King found himself in Memphis, Tennessee, leading
and supporting a protest of sanitation employees over wages
and conditions. It was here that his life was tragically cut
short when he was shot and killed while standing on a balcony
of a motel in Memphis on 4th April. He was 39. James Earl
Ray was convicted of his murder and sentence to 99 years in
Despite his untimely death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dramatically
influenced his nation and beyond. An individual characterized
by passion, vision, and courage, King never wearied of dreaming
of what could be. African-Americans and the poor were given
sense of hope and value because of his commitment and determination.
King’s heart for a better world is summed up in his
own words: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for
freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must ever conduct ourselves our struggle on the high plane
of dignity and discipline. We must not let our creative protest
to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must
rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with
Roberts, Wesley. The History of Christianity, A Lion Handbook
(Lion Publishing, Oxford, England. 1990)