Thursday, April 30, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. : The Man With a Dream by Chris White

Martin Luther King Jr.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was born January 15th, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia.  His birth name was Michael Luther King but later adopted his father’s name and went as Jr.  Both his father and grandfather were preachers at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  King and his only brother Alfred also grew to become preachers.

Martin was a gifted student and because of his test scores managed to skip two grades in high school and entered college at age 15.  His academic career was quite distinguished earning degrees in sociology, divinity, and eventually a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University.  Throughout his career as a civil rights leader he accumulated 20 honorary doctoral degrees from some of America’s most distinguished schools.

King was ordained at age 19 by his home church and after graduation from seminary he pastored a congregation in Montgomery Alabama for 5 years.  This first pastorate would give direction to the rest of his life.  His first year in Montgomery was 1954.  It was also the same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on one of the downtown buses.  This in turn led to a citywide boycott of the municipal bus system. Organizers elected the young pastor King to lead this effort and this brought about his rise to national prominence.  
Rosa Parks

The boycott lasted more than a year but resulted in Alabama’s segregation laws being struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.  It was during this time that he realized his new calling and eventually resigned the church in Montgomery to move back to Atlanta.  There he founded and became the 1st director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference whose mission it was to peacefully protest for Civil Rights.
Martin and Coretta Scott King

 In 1959, King and his wife Coretta go to India as the guests of Prime Minister Nehru to study Gandhi’s methods of non-violent protest.  King did not waver from Christian beliefs in his thinking, but felt that Gandhi’s methodology of non-violent and non-destructive change was the best vehicle for appealing to people’s minds and consciences.  According to King, “Jesus Christ provided the spirit of non-violence, while Gandhi presented the method.” 

 Gandhi’s work on behalf of the Indian people in South Africa and later in British controlled India was against laws designed to deny certain races of people basic human rights.  It had been extremely effective and King saw a direct parallel with the race issue in America.  A lesser known influence on both King and Gandhi was the early American essayist Henry David Thoreau who wrote on civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 4 Cornerstones of Non-Violent Change:
  1. No agressive or violent actions towards your opponent.  The opposition must see they are mistaken through spiritual means and spiritual change.
  2. Do not seek defeat or humiliation of your enemy, but rather seek to win their friendship and understanding.  The aftermath of violence is always bitterness, the aftermath of non-violence is redemption, reconciliation, and community.
  3. The battle for Civil Rights is a spiritual one.  Those who practice and perpetuate injustice have been provoked to do so by spiritual forces of darkness.  Only light can dispel the darkness.
  4. The chain of hate can only be broken by loving your enemies.  Thus, non-violent resistance eschews not only physical retaliation but also hating your opponent which is a form of violence of the spirit.
King was not universally heralded by all groups within the black community because of his principles.  Other movements such as the Black Power Movement and Nation of Islam stressed self-defense, and acts of violence to bring about change.  Such leaders would include Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.  King actually lived out these principles in the heat of battle.  He never used bodyguards during protests and was assaulted and arrested numerous times.
Ghandi's Methods inspired MLK jr.

Transcending King's non-violent approach to racial discrimination was his gift of oratory.  He was at core a preacher and his message and rhetoric was riveting.  The most noteworthy speech he gave was at the August 1963 March on Washington.  In front of the Lincoln memorial before a crowd of 250,000 he delivered his famed "I have a Dream" speech.  It has entered into the canon of American literature and speech-making as one of the most important and well-crafted in the history of our country.

Watch Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" Speech here

Even as King gave that speech, civil rights for blacks in America was really still just a dream.  This is the same year "Bull" Connor ordered firehoses to be used on black protesters on Birmingham along with police dogs.  But by this time the nation and world were watching these things on the evening news and the contrast between agression and non-violence was seen and having its effect.  One of those watching was then President John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy began work on getting the Civil Rights Act started that same summer but was killed four months later.

Watch President Kennedy's Speech on Civil Rights 

Although loved by many, there were some whites who considered him uppity.  Although Billy Graham has a long record of standing against racial discrimination, even he publicly said he thought King was moving “too fast”.
MLK was incarcerated many times

Just prior to the 1963 March on Washington King was in jail and there he wrote a public letter to the clergy of America that is quite revealing of his perceptions about the church and the average Christian in the day: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the white citizens councilor or the Ku-Klux-Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than justice.”

In 1964, despite great opposition in congress from several southern states, President Lyndon Johnson was able to get passed the Civil Rights Act which effectively ended legal racial discrimination in the United States.  This was a great victory for Martin Luther King Jr. and many others who had labored long and hard in this battle, but winning a battle doesn't mean a war is over.  Even in the 21st century, "the race issue" continues to have lingering effects in America.  

MLK minutes before his death

In 1968 MLK was gunned down in Memphis by James Earl Ray under suspicious circumstances.  It was likely a paid ‘hit’.  King had nearly died some years early when he was attacked and nearly stabbed to death while in Harlem.  In 1999, wife Coretta Scott King and their children of launched a civil trial to try the case as a conspiracy in which city officials of Memphis along with state officials and certain members of the federal government had colluded in the assassination of Dr. King.  The 12 person jury in Memphis Tennessee ruled in favor of the King family.

In 1969 King’s younger brother died accidentally and in 1974 King’s mother was shot and killed by an assailant while she was playing the organ at Church on a Sunday morning.

In his work Martin Luther King Jr. traveled over 6 million miles and spoke publicly over 2500 times.  Through his and the efforts of so many others, the Civil Rights Act was passed 100 years after the end of the Civil War.  A down payment was made on "the Dream."  At age 35, MLK was the youngest man ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
King with President Johnson in 1964

One author has wisely assessed that to understand Martin Luther King as only a black leader fighting for the rights and liberation of black people is to miss the wider scope of his work.  He worked with many people both black and white to end, at least legally, our nations ultimate hypocrisy.  We were founded under the principle that all men are created equal and have certain unalienable rights, but that did not apply until recent history.  Had the civil rights movement of 1954-1964 never happened, America would hardly be able to call herself the leader of the free world.

On the internet there are some fairly vicious sites geared at discrediting Dr. King.  Most of the material is false or greatly exaggerated.  Suffice it to say MLK was a good man who like most of us had his sins and failures.  A fact of life he shares with many of our greatest American heroes.  But we honor Martin Luther King Jr. not as a saint but a great leader whose life and career (only 13 years) was cut short.

King is the only American clergyman who is honored with a national holiday.

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