Martin Luther King Jr.: What to know about the civil rights leader

on Feb7
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who spent his life fighting American injustice, was born Jan. 15, 1929, and his birthday, made a federal holiday late in 1983, is celebrated every year on the third Monday in January.

WAR

Hagiography and the passage of time after his assassination have disappeared the radicality of King’s vision – the civil rights icon attacked the Vietnam War and the unequal American economy at the end of his life.

King had concluded that militarism, like poverty, was stalling the U.S. from living up to its ideals.

“I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America,” King told an audience at New York’s Riverside Church in 1967. “I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.”

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: THE LIFE AND THE LEGACY

UNITED STATES - 1957: Portrait of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by Walter Bennett/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

UNITED STATES – 1957: Portrait of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by Walter Bennett/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

POVERTY

In the spring of 1968, King had won victories on desegregation and voting rights and had been planning his Poor People’s Campaign when he turned his attention to Memphis, the gritty Tennessee city by the Mississippi River. In his support for striking sanitation workers, King wanted to lead marches and show that nonviolent protest still worked.

The father of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement was 39 when he was assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Memphis, and he had already become one of the world’s most well-known figures.

The next day, King’s closest confidant, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, said: “Tighten your belts and dry your tears. If you love Martin Luther King as you say you do, help me carry on his work.”

The members of King’s tight circle barely paused to grieve. They plunged into carrying out his unfinished work, and turned it into a lifelong vow.

Some went into politics. A few continued to serve the organization that King led or started their own. Others returned to the pulpit, preaching a gospel of racial liberation.

On the campus of Atlanta University (later renamed Clark Atlanta University) to discuss 'sit-in' protests, American religious and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr sits with his hands on his knee, mid-May, 1960. (Photo by Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

On the campus of Atlanta University (later renamed Clark Atlanta University) to discuss ‘sit-in’ protests, American religious and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr sits with his hands on his knee, mid-May, 1960. (Photo by Howard Sochurek/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

SEGREGATION

King fought for many progressive issues throughout his life as a minister and the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaking out against various systemic barriers holding back blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans. 

He famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, calling for equality among the races.

ALVEDA KING SAYS OF MLK’S ICONIC SPEECH, 57 YEARS LATER: ‘WE STILL HAVE A DREAM’

King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus.

Four days after Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, King exhorted a crowd at the Holt Street Baptist Church to launch a bus boycott.

“Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end,” he told the thousands gathered at the church that day in 1955.

A federal court ended racial segregation on Montgomery public buses, elevating King into the national spotlight.

Years later, he stood behind President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places and employment discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.

PA News Photo 25/9/64 : Dr. Martin Luther King during a one-day visit to London. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

PA News Photo 25/9/64 : Dr. Martin Luther King during a one-day visit to London. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

VOTING

King pushed for federal civil rights legislation that was eventually enacted and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

King’s participation in the 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery elevated awareness about the troubles blacks faced in registering to vote.

Johnson addressed a special session of Congress after marchers were attacked by white mobs and police, successfully urging lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act.

King achieved a lasting effect. By the 1970s and 1980s, the American South had elected thousands of blacks to various offices, compared to almost none in the 1950s.

Black and Latino coalitions sprouted in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston to elect people of color to local and federal offices — and eventually aided in electing the nation’s first black president.

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LEGACY

Toward the end of his life King’s progressivism grew more radical, and backlash against him grew stronger.

“We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house,” King said. “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had …. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

In a 1966 Gallup poll, 63%.of the American public rated King negatively. According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the icon died with a public disapproval rating of almost 75%. After King was assassinated, 31% of Americans told Gallup said they “felt he brought it on himself.”

Although the leader preferred the power of morality rather than the fame of popularity the latter has grown throughout the years, giving credence to his statement:  “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

King’s example, and his insistence on nonviolent protest, continues to influence many activists pushing for civil rights and social change.

His legacy of service and political empowerment have birthed generations inspired to make political and social order calls for more action in line with King’s principles of pacifism and togetherness.



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