This post is part of our blog series, “Countdown to Black History Month 2013.” Each blog post will cover one significant event or person in black history that we are highlighting as a lead in to Black History Month 2013: At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality. This year is a particularly significant Black History Month as it is both the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday – January 15, 1929
On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, GA to the name Michael Luther King, after his father. Michael Luther King Sr., a successful minister by profession, later changed his name to Martin Luther to honor the German Protestant spiritual leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. would eventually follow in his father’s footsteps both in career and name choice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. with his wife, Coretta Scott King
Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Booker T. Washington High School, the first all African-American public school in Atlanta, GA, where he was a very successful student. Skipping both 9th and 11th grade, King entered Morehouse College in 1944 at only 15 years old. There, he earned a sociology degree and continued his education in seminary school in Pennsylvania, where he became valedictorian and class president. King continued his Doctoral studies in Theology at Boston University, during which time he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer at the New England Conservatory. They married in 1953, and eventually had four children. King completed his PhD in 1955 at only 25 years old.
That same year, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on the public city bus. The NAACP and local civil rights leaders elected King to be the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott because he was a young, well-educated, family-oriented man, who had no past controversies and a gift for rhetoric. MLK’s inspirational rhetoric succeeded in alighting new passion into the protest, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful in overturning the public transit segregation law.
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave over 350 speeches in his short lifetime
In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with 60 ministers and civil rights leaders. The group’s goal was to promote peaceful protests and non-violent sit-ins to make advancements in the civil rights of African-Americans and Blacks in the United States. Their first order of business was to enfranchise the poor black population in the south, and began education programs and registration opportunities for black voters. In 1959, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India, as he was greatly inspired by Gandhi’s successful application of peaceful protest. The trip greatly influenced King’s decision to devote himself to the civil rights movement. Over the next decade, he became the public face of the non-violent protest civil rights movement, giving speeches and lectures all over the United States, developing relationships with other civil rights leaders, and appearing at protests and sites of social injustice.
March on Washington, August 28, 1963, Over 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Mermorial in Washington, D.C. to support the civil rights movement and heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1963, King and the SCLC led a large demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama that lasted for 6 days. Everyday, large numbers of protesters were arrested and Martin Luther King, Jr. was put into solitary confinement. There he penned the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margin of an old newspaper and toilet paper, in which he famously wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The protest drew national attention when police turned fire hoses and dogs on a group of young student protesters. After Birmingham, King and his supporters felt the groundwork had been laid for an even bigger demonstration. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington protest, held in front of the Lincoln memorial, rallied over 200,000 people from all over the country. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, a beautiful and powerful piece of rhetoric declaring: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
In 1964, the government passed the monumental Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation of public facilities and accommodations. The same year, at age 35, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the youngest recipient ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the proceeds of which he donated to the furtherance of the civil rights movement. Through out the late 1960s, King continued his civil rights efforts, but started to receive criticism for his non-violent tactics from the younger generations of African-Americans inspired by the black power movements. In response, King started linking the African-American civil rights cause to the anti-Vietnam War cause, and successfully broadened his base of supporters to include those in poverty and those disillusioned with government control of personal freedoms.
After attending a labor strike in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on his motel room balcony. Cities all over the country broke out in riots and protests and somewhere between 10,00 to 100,000 people lined the streets and mourned as his funeral procession passed through the city of Atlanta.
Today, Martin Luther King would have turned 84 years old. While he did not live to see the America that was born of his civil rights efforts, his presence is felt in a legacy of equal rights that holds a powerful place in the history and culture of the United States and beyond. With all that is happening in the world today, we can still benefit from the lesson behind the words Martin Luther King penned in the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Read more facts and watch videos about MLK at: http://www.biography.com/people/martin-luther-king-jr-9365086
Listen to the entire “I Have a Dream Speech”: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts that are a part of the “Countdown to Black History Month 2013” series. Black History Month provides a significant opportunity for organizations to have conversations around the history and contributions of African Americans. Please visit our Black History Month Page for more information about Black History Month as well as ways to engage your employees or volunteers.