SAINTS OF PAST AGES: DR MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR

18th June, 2005

TONY TOWNSEND

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 globe.

Early Years
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.
 

A memorial statue of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. PICTURE: Richard Baker (www.istockphoto.com)

 

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 soul force.”

During 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 four children.
 
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 speeches
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.
 

An untimely death
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 prison.
 
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 soul force.”

 

Sources 
Roberts, Wesley. The History of Christianity, A Lion Handbook (Lion Publishing, Oxford, England. 1990)
 
www.afroamhistory.about.com/od/martinlutherking/
 
www.thekingcenter.org

 


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