Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929. His father was a Baptist minister. He attended public elementary and high schools as well as the private Laboratory High School of Atlanta University. King entered Morehouse College at the age of fifteen in September 1944 as a special student. He received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1948. In the fall of that year, King enrolled at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and received his Bachelor of Divinity degree three years later. King was awarded a doctorate by Boston University in 1955.
While attending Boston University, he met Coretta Scott whom he married in June 1953. Early in 1954, King accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He had been a resident in Montgomery less than one year when Rosa Parks defied the ordinance regulating segregated seating on municipal transportation. Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate, in her book, On the Bus With Rosa Parks, tells the story. Here is how it began:
We know the story. One December evening, a woman left work and boarded a bus for home. She was tired; her feet ached. But this was Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and as the bus became crowded, the woman, a black woman, was ordered to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she remained seated, that simple decision eventually led to the disintegration of institutionalized segregation in the South, ushering in a new era of the civil rights movement.
Blacks responded to Rosa Parks’ arrest with a boycott of Montgomery’s buses. The boycott went on and on. In many different ways, blacks were able to hold their ground and maintain their resolve. The matter went to the courts. Finally, in November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court ruling declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott was over, and the struggle for civil rights went on.
King, urged by prominent black Baptist ministers in the South to assume a larger role in the struggle for black civil rights following the successful boycott, accepted the presidency of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In January 1960, he resigned his Montgomery pastorate and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where the SCLC had its headquarters.
The Polities of Nonviolent Protest
King followed Gandhi’s principles of pacifism. In King’s view, civil rights demonstrators, who were beaten and jailed by hostile whites, educated and transformed their oppressors through the redemptive character of their unmerited suffering.
King entered the civil rights struggle at the same time that the federal government was beginning to reaffirm the principles of equality. In 1957, President Eisenhower presented a four-point proposal for protecting civil rights. Passed by Congress and signed by the president, the proposal became the first civil rights law to be enacted by the U.S. government since the 19th century.
It authorized the federal government to bring civil suits in federal court when any person was denied or threatened in his or her right to vote. It elevated the civil rights section of the Department of Justice to the status of a division, with an assistant attorney general in charge. It also created the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which has authority to investigate allegations of denials of the right to vote, to study and collect information concerning legal developments constituting a denial of equal protection of the laws and to appraise the laws and policies of the federal government with respect to equal protection. The nation was slowly moving closer to a fuller realization of the dream of its founding fathers, but for black Americans the pace was not quick enough, and they challenged local laws and customs to force change.
From Birmingham to the March on Washington
The most critical direct action demonstration began in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 3, 1963, under the leadership of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The demonstrators demanded fair employment opportunities, desegregation of public facilities and the creation of a committee to plan desegregation.
For a month the demonstration was notable merely because of the large number of participants, including many schoolchildren, and the large number of arrests. King himself was arrested and, while imprisoned, wrote his celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to fellow clergymen critical of his tactics of civil disobedience.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. . . . In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. . . .You may well ask, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. . . .The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation . . . . One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all. . . . ”One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. . . .Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . .
The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. . . .
King was arrested more than seven times during his many civil rights campaigns throughout the South.
The Birmingham demonstration did not bring the concessions that the marchers sought, but the protest was enormously important because it compelled the American people to face the problem of discrimination in a way they had never done before. For the first time in U.S. history, the president appeared before the nation and declared that race discrimination was a moral issue. A few days later he submitted a new and broadened civil fights program to Congress. The bill containing President Kennedy’s recommendation occupied much of the attention of Congress during the summer of 1963. As Congress and the nation debated the proposed civil fights bill, black activists planned a mammoth peaceful demonstration of Americans from all walks of life aimed at hastening progress and showing interracial agreement.
1. Where was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first job as a minister?
a. Atlanta, Georgia
b. Chester, Pennsylvania
c. Boston, Massachusetts
d. Montgomery, Alabama
2. What was the final result of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama?
a. Bus segregation was deemed illegal.
b. Parks was arrested.
c. Blacks boycotted Montgomery buses.
d. The issue went to the Supreme Court.
3. King’s first prominent experience with civil rights leadership was his
b. presidency at the SCLC.
c. March on Washington.
d. first arrest.
4. A synonym for the word pacific is a. provoke. b. ocean. c. peaceful. d. angry.
5. King hoped that persistent pacifism would affect hostile whites by
a. helping them to feel peace and love toward their fellow human beings.
b. angering them into acts of violence so that they would be arrested.
c. inspiring them to join the civil rights movement.
d. showing them the best way to fight.
6. What did King and his followers not demand in their April 1963 demonstration?
a. fair employment opportunities
b. the creation of a desegregation committee
c. total racial equality
d. desegregation of public places
7. According to King, which of the following is not an example of nonviolent direct action?
d. freedom rides
8. Using information from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, explain why he advocated nonviolent direct action as opposed to negotiation.