Remembering the Man who had a Dream

The third Monday in January of every year is a national holiday in the United States in honour of the renowned and celebrated advocate of non-violent social change and foremost civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King whose birthday is on the 15th of Janaury. Dr. King would have been 80 last year had he been alive. Though King may be dead, his legacy has lived on.

 The symbolic leader of American blacks, youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, keynote speaker at the March on Washington and prime mover of the Montgomery bus boycott was thrown into the spotlight at the young age of twenty-six when as a member of the executive committee of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), he accepted the leadership of the first great Negro non-violent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States. The NAACP was the leading organisation of its kind then in the U.S. Though any number of historic moments can be used to identify Dr. King, his policy of non-violent protest borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi of India was the dominant force in the civil rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement from 1957 to 1968.

Martin Luther King was born at noon on Tuesday, January 15, 1929 at the family home in Atlanta Georgia to the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and Alberta King (nee Williams), a former schoolteacher. He was one of three children (being the first son and the second child) and was initially christened Michael and later renamed Martin when he was about 6 years old. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia including the Yonge Street Elementary School, the David T. Howard Elementary School, the Atlanta University Laboratory School and the Booker T. Washington High School. Due to his high scores at the college entrance examinations and having skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades, Dr. King advanced to Morehouse College (a distinguished historically Black institution in Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated) at the age of fifteen without formal graduation from Booker T. Washington. He graduated in 1948 with a B.A. degree in Sociology. He then proceeded that same year to Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was awarded the Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. While at Crozer, he was elected president of a predominantly white class, won the Pearl Plafker award for the most outstanding student and received the J. Lewis Crozer fellowship for graduate study which he used to enrol at Boston University for doctoral studies. He was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology in 1955, two years after completing his residency.

He married the former Coretta Scott in 1953 and four children (two sons and two daughters) were born to them. King accepted the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954 and here he made his first mark on the civil rights movement by mobilising the black community during the 382-day boycott of the city’s bus lines. He was the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organisation responsible for the co-ordination of the bus boycott. On December 21, 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses. During the period of the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed and he was subjected to personal abuse. He however emerged during this period as an African-American leader of the first rank. In 1957, King summoned a number of black leaders and laid the foundation for the organisation now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organisation formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. He was elected its president, a position he held until his death. From 1960 until his death in 1968, King was co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church where his grandfather had also been pastor from 1914 to 1931. In 1963, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama for fair hiring practices and the desegregation of department-store facilities during which he was arrested. It was during this period that he wrote what has become one of the most important American documents, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a manifesto of the African-American revolution. Later that year in August, he led the 250,000 man March on Washington to whom he delivered one of the most passionate and most popular addresses of his career; the “I Have a Dream.” speech.

Time Magazine designated him as its Person of the Year for 1963 (he had earlier been named one of the most outstanding personalities of the year in 1957 by TIME). In 1964, he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize at the age of thirty-five. He was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. His prize money of $54,123 was turned over for the furtherance of the civil rights movement. On his return from Norway to accept the award, King led a voter-registration campaign in Selma, Alabama that ended in the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Chicago, he launched programs to rehabilitate the slums and provide housing. King was in the middle of plans to organise massive non-violent demonstrations in major cities and a march of the poor on Washington to sensitise Congress on the need to deal with the problem of poor, downtrodden and desperate Americans when he was interrupted to lend his support to the Memphis sanitation men’s strike. He wanted to discourage violence and focus the national attention on the plight of the poor unorganised workers of the city who were bargaining for basic union representation and long overdue raises. It was here he delivered his final speech, which ranks among his most famous utterances, “I have Been to the Mountaintop”.

Death came for King on April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the black owned Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was shot in the neck by a rifle bullet while standing outside with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy by a gunman named James Earl Ray. His death caused a wave of violence in major cities across the U.S. James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England on June 8, 1968 and returned to Memphis to stand trial where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ninety-nine years imprisonment. King’s funeral was held on April 9, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church and on the campus of Morehouse College. The President of the United States declared a day of mourning and flags were flown at half-staff. The Lorraine Hotel where he was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum. His birthday, January 15, which is a national holiday, is celebrated each year with educational programs, artistic displays and concerts throughout the U.S. His widow organised the Martin Luther King Jr. Centre for Non-Violent Social Change, which today stands next to his beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered for his vital personality, his inspirational lectures, speeches and remarks, his courageous and selfless devotion to a cause he believed in and died for, his charismatic leadership that inspired others, his dreams for a new cast of life and his philosophy of non-violent direct action. During his thirteen years of crusading for civil rights acclamation, he also wrote five books and numerous articles, travelled over six million miles, and spoke over two thousand five hundred times. He was awarded over twenty honorary doctorate degrees from numerous colleges and universities in the U.S. and several foreign countries. Hr received several hundred awards including the John F. Kennedy Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago (1964), the Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, presented by the Jamaican Government and the Rosa L. Parks Award presented by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference both of which were awarded posthumously in 1968.

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