The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. (born Michael Lewis King Jr., January 15, 1929 April 4, 1968) was a minister, social activist, and orator active during the American Civil Rights Movement. He has become a permanent fixture of American History as an enduring symbol of racial justice, non-violent civil disobedience, and moral courage. For many, his name is the name of one America's greatest heroes and leaders, synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement itself.
Martin Jr. was born the second son of a ruthless but loving Baptist preacher named Michael King Sr., who renamed both himself and his son after the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Martin Jr. experienced the realities of racial segregation firsthand, attending a ramshackle all-black school while his white friends attended the pristine white school nearby, being kicked out of shops that refused to serve black patrons, and being abused by racist policemen. The experiences embittered the young King, causing him to grow up rebellious and moody. Despite this, he made a name for himself from a young age, demonstrating profound intelligence, an extraordinary gift for oratory, and a beautiful singing voice. Something of a Child Prodigy, Martin enrolled in Morehouse College at the age of 15, majoring in sociology. During his senior year of college, inspired by his father's uncompromising opposition to segregation and a desire to assuage his hatred of white people, Martin decided to enter the ministry, eventually receiving his doctorate in Theology from Crozer Theological Seminary at the age of 26. He was called to serve as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a happenstance that would change his life forever.
Almost as soon as he entered Montgomery, Dr. King found himself embroiled in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, two of Dr. King's parishioners, a pregnant teenager named Claudette Colvin and a seamstress-cum-activist named Rosa Parks, were arrested for violating laws that required them to give up their seats to white passengers on a bus. Dr. King and several other members of the community organized the first of many mass movements against Jim Crow laws in response: the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott was quite effective, as the city of Montgomery depended heavily on revenue from the buses to function, and the vast majority of passengers on those buses were African-American. The protest caused a significant amount of backlash, causing Dr. King to be harassed and arrested and his house to be bombed. Despite this, he persisted, and the federal courts finally ruled the segregation of the Montgomery buses unconstitutional. The success of Dr. King's campaign and his persistence in the face of overwhelming opposition immediately catapulted him into the national spotlight and cemented his role as a leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
From then on, Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name. He, along with his newly organized Southern Christian Leadership Conference, conducted campaigns of mass protest and civil disobedience across the South to challenge Jim Crow laws. Inspired by Christian luminaries such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo, Dr. King believed he had a moral imperative to disobey unjust laws and encourage others to do the same. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's successful attempts to win India's independence from British rule, Dr. King believed in nonviolent resistance as the key to defeating Jim Crow once and for all. To this end, he organized sit-ins, walk-outs, voter registration drives, strikes, and marches. His most famous campaigns include the Birmingham Movement in the Spring of 1963, a campaign to desegregate "the most segregated city in America"/ where he was jailed and wrote his most famous written piece, Letter from Birmingham Jail, where King explained why the call to "Wait" for something better, said often enough, translates into "Never" and why the fight for Justice needs to embrace "the fierce urgency of Now." With that kind of fire in his crusade, King drove it further in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the Summer of 1963, which culminated in Dr. King's most famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Montgomery-Selma Marches, which served as a catalyst for the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1964. For these efforts and others, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Dr. King's successes were marred by the violent reprisals he was forced to endure. The authorities and private citizens of Alabama and other states fought tooth and nail to impede his progress or even to kill him. He and his followers were beaten and tormented by police officers and private citizens; fire departments turned high-pressure hoses on them during marches.note Many who worked with Dr. King's organization found themselves murdered and maimed. Dr. King himself was arrested no less than 29 times. In 1958, he was stabbed in the chest by a mentally ill black woman, and nearly died. Even in the face of mounting opposition, Dr. King refused to be deterred, believing that no cost was too great for the cause of justice. He also refused to strike back, believing his moral authority was rooted in the ability to endure suffering without causing it in return. His approach was criticized by those such as Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael, who believed that pacifism in the face of violence was simply playing into the hands of white supremacy. For his part, while he did respect Malcolm X's charisma and eloquence, King worried that his fiery rhetoric would cause more problems than it would solve. The two had a sort of uneasy friendship and were on the verge of a full-blown alliance shortly before Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965.
From 1967 to 1968, Dr. King turned his attention to opposing The Vietnam War and campaigning for economic justice in his Poor People's Campaign. On April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered what would be his last sermon, titled I've Been to the Mountaintop, where he famously declared: "...I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." The next day, his words proved prophetic. On April 4, 1968, while attempting to help organize a sanitation worker's strike in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the wake of Dr. King's death, the country erupted into a series of race riots in major cities in both the North and South. Though the riots eventually subsided, Dr. King's death at the hands of a white assassin — James Earl Ray — left a deep scar on American race relations that has yet to be fully healed. Furthering the divide are suspicions that Dr. King's death remains yet unsolved, that Ray was either part of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King, or else was a scapegoat.note Some suspect the FBI's COINTELPRO program, which had worked to monitor and sabotage Dr. King's efforts, but these claims have never been fully substantiated.
Martin Luther King's legacy is far-reaching. After his death, he inspired a new generation of social activist clergy and Black Power movements to carry on his work, both at home and abroad. His work was also responsible for bringing white people into the Civil Rights struggle in never-before-seen numbers, moved both by his suffering brought to them in living color on the news and by his commitment to peaceful coexistence with a group of people that didn't even acknowledge his humanity. As a posthumous figure, Martin Luther King continues to be the source of controversy. Even today, there are those who wish to acknowledge him as nothing more than a rabble-rouser who flouted law and order for his own political ends. The decision to recognize his birthday as a national holiday was extremely controversial when first proposed, and there are still some states which categorically refuse to celebrate it.note Expect critics to delve into more unsavory aspects of his personal life, such as his marital infidelities which were later revealed to the public as part of the FBI's Blackmail campaign and later revelations that some of his theological works, including his doctoral dissertation, were partially plagiarized. Critics of a more liberal bent note that Dr. King had rather patronizing views of homosexuality, believing it was a mental illness that could be overcome through prayer. Despite his close collaboration with Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin (both gay men) in organizing the March on Washington, he ultimately capitulated to public pressure to keep them at a distance. His wife, Coretta Scott King, was mostly responsible for including gay rights in the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting the mentorship role Rustin played in visiting India to research non-violent strategies at Gandhi's ashrams and organizing the March on Washington.
King even had a direct effect on the arts, such as when he persuaded a player on the only TV show he allowed his children to watch, Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols, to stay on when she was ready to quit in frustration at the racism she endured. With his powerful eloquence, King convinced Nichols that her character was a valuable presence as part of a dream of a future his children and many others could hope for. No wonder series creator, Gene Roddenberry, was so moved upon learning what a very special fan thought of his work; after all, it's not every day when you have the support of a King.
On the flip side, the public at large has often been accused of sanitizing Martin Luther King's image, ignoring his radical message and how vigorously the United States government opposed him, and instead attempting to paint him as a colorblind, politically-neutral advocate for non-violence. His opposition to the Vietnam War is glossed over, ignoring how controversial it was was, how much of a personal and political risk he took by taking it, and how far ahead that was from the public sentiment at the time (the anti-war movement really went into high gear a few years later). Politically, he was a committed socialist, though he purposely kept his convictions vague in most settings due to the Red Scare sweeping the country at the time. Latter day supporters tend to assume that King was a moderating voice in the movement, urging non-violence as opposed to his more radical contemporaries urging revolutionary violence. In fact, the opposite is true. Martin Luther King was considered one of the more radical voices in the Civil Rights Movement, his ethos a direct contrast to the more conciliatory efforts of organizations like the NAACP. His tactics, which involved repeated and flagrant disobedience of the law, his speeches expressing support for socialism and opposition to the Vietnam War, and his willingness to work with individuals with suspected communist sympathies made his opponents believe that he was a dangerous subversive. The FBI and then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy placed him under careful surveillance out of a belief that he might been a communist agent, and the Democratic and Republican Parties' leaders took a stand against him. Only when King's efforts were stonewalled did more radical elements start suggesting that nonviolence might no longer be an option (e.g. the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee suddenly becoming the Student National Coordinating Committee). Faced with an increasingly militant response, voices who had once criticized King found themselves far more receptive of his message of peaceful coexistence. King himself also often expressed doubts about the efficacy of integration, noting that white America's rampant social problems may mean "integrating into a burning house."
Nevertheless, Reverend Doctor King is remembered as the spokesman for civil rights in America. His name is invoked often whenever issues of human rights and social justice are concerned. Modern day Americans have taken to considering him a "Founding Father" of contemporary America, who, despite never holding public office, had a social and political impact in American society comparable to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
Depictions in fiction and the arts:
- Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. King, depicts the Montgomery to Selma march and the associated push for the Voting Rights Act.
- The Boondocks episode "Return of the King" features Dr. King as having been in a thirty-year coma rather than being assassinated in 1968. He awakens to find himself a social pariah in a post-9/11 America. There is also an In-Universe biopic in that same episode where King is played by Cuba Gooding Jr..
- The Selma Massacre has Dr. King killed about five years early at the Selma March, spinning off an Alternate History with a far more militant Civil Rights Movement.
- Dr. King briefly appears in Ali, played by LeVar Burton.
- Harry Turtledove's The Two Georges has Martin Luther King as the Governor General of the North American Union, reflecting the tendency of freed slaves to enter the civil service. He also appears in Turtledove's Worldwar series, much the same as he was in real life, but with a significantly more difficult task due to the tendency of southern black people to support the Alien Invasion.
- Our Friend Martin shows a kid meeting him via time travel, and later trying to save him from being assassinated by bringing him to his time....with horrifying results.
- Epic Rap Battles of History pits him against Mahatma Gandhi. He is portrayed by Jordan Peele.
- The film All the Way, based on a play of the same name written by Robert Schenkkan, focuses on the legislative battle to pass the Voting Rights Act, starring Anthony Mackie as Dr. King.
- The T.V. drama Boycott features King, played by Jeffrey Wright, organizing the titular Montgomery Bus Boycott. Notable in being one of the few works that portrays interaction between King and his mentor Bayard Rustin, as well as King's early ambivalence about pacifism.