By Indhrannie Pillay
Martin Luther King Jr was born 15 January 1929 in Atlanta. While growing up he witnessed first hand, the harsh brutalities and injustices dealt to black people and the reality of legally supported racism in the United States of America. Americans of African decent were subjected into an unconditional status as an inferior class of human beings. King was desperate to see a change, where both White and Black Americans could live together with equality and in peace and harmony. He had a burning desire to learn a method for eliminating social injustice and evil. This led him to the Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. It was there, upon attending a lecture on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi by the president of Howard University, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, that King had been exposed to Gandhian principles and the power of nonviolent resistance. This became the turning point in his life. After receiving his Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, King pursued his Ph. D. in Systematic Theology at the Boston University School of Theology in 1951 and received his degree in 1955.
By the age of 24, King married Coretta Scott, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. They were married in Marion by Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. Over the next 10 years they had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott and Bernice Albertine, respectively. Coretta fast became a part of her husband’s support system. “I am indebted to my wife Coretta, without whose love, sacrifices, and loyalty neither life nor work would bring fulfillment. She has given me words of consolation when I needed them and a well-ordered home where Christian love is a reality,” King once said.
In 1954, King was offered and accepted the pastorate at Dextor Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. This later proved to be a significant decision as the civil rights movement unfolded. December of 1956 saw the birth of King’s nonviolent resistance to the restrictive laws and customs that denied black Americans their dignity, liberty and equality with their fellow countrymen. Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery bus and was arrested for violating segregation laws. The arrest of Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) of which King was elected president. The role of the MIA was to provide direction and organization to the boycott. His role in the bus strike, made King a target to those who opposed his resistance to white domination. His family home in Montgomery was bombed whilst his wife and daughter were inside, fortunately neither were injured. Upon hearing the news of the bombing, King rushed home and was greeted by an agitated group of supporters who had gathered outside his home. King addressed them and asked them for calm and pleaded nonviolence. This event did not deter King. The MIA continued their fight against the bus segregation laws with lawsuits challenging the injustice. Finally, on 13 November 1957, the appeal was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court ruled that the Alabaman state and local laws requiring segregation, were unconstitutional. On the 21 December 1957, just over a year after it began, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts came to an end. King was one of the first to step into the newly integrated buses, and in his spirit of reconciliation told his fellow strikers, “As we go back to the buses let us be loving enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”
King’s continued fight for black equality made him a powerful threat to the system which he opposed. 20 September 1960 saw King become the victim of an assassination attempt. Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a letter opener in his chest in Harlem, New York. King required major surgery to remove the weapon, which rested against his cardiac organs. His assailant was judged insane and King refused to press charges against her, instead Curry was committed to an institution for the criminally insane.
Over the next couple of years, King, together with thousands of other black freedom fighters intensified their protests against racial discrimination, despite being jailed on many occasions. These marches and protests played a significant role in bringing their issues to the fore, resulting in many of the unjust laws being ruled as unconstitutional. On 10 December 1964 at the age of 35, King became the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, in Oslo Sweden. He used his prize money of $54,123 to further the civil rights movement. In 1967, he delivered a speech protesting against the Vietnam War at the United Nations Plaza in New York. It is the largest recorded peace demonstration in the history of New York.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, King was assassinated. He was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, scheduled for 8 April. President Johnson ordained Sunday, 7 April 1968 as a day of National mourning in honour of King. On 9 April, King was laid to rest at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. More than 300 000 mourners were present to pay tribute to King, and marched through Atlanta with his mule-drawn coffin. James Earl Ray was identified as King's assassin and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in prison of liver failure on April 23, 1998.
Martin Luther King Jr made an unimaginable contribution to American civil rights and was instrumental in helping to rectify the injustices dealt to Black Americans. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1977, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. In 1986, Martin Luther King Day was established as a United States Holiday, and is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's birthday. King is only one of three people to receive this distinction and of the three is the only one who was not a President of the U.S., indicating his extraordinary position in American history. The other two are Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. In 2004, King was posthumously awarded the Congress Gold Medal which is the highest medal awarded to a civilian who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States.