the Week. January 20th, 2003.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.
It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in
destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate
the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate
rather that to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives
on hatred rather than love." These words are the basis for
the philosophy of one of the most famous of modern American philosophers,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
King was born on January 15, 1929, in
Atlanta, Georgia. He was a very gifted student who skipped ninth,
tenth, and twelfth grades. He attended college at the age of 15.
He became a Christian minister after graduation from college.
He would later earn a Ph.D. and earn the title of "Doctor."
During his studies, King was introduced to Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy
of nonviolent protest, which he later incorporated into his own
King began to gain attention as a civil
rights leader while he was a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama. On
December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her seat and
move to the back of the bus. She refused and was arrested and
put in jail. King was chosen to lead the organization that directed
the bus boycott to protest the segregation of city buses. It was
a year before the Supreme Court ordered that the buses be desegregated.
King's book, Stride Toward Freedom, was written about the bus
boycott. "In our struggle against racial segregation in Montgomery,
Alabama, I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis
of Gandhi's method of nonviolence and the Christian ethic of love
is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for
freedom and human dignity."
In 1957, King helped found the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that worked
to end segregation by nonviolent means, such as marches, demonstrations,
and boycotts. As a leader of the SCLC, he was put in jail during
a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. While in jail, he wrote "Letter
from Birmingham City Jail" to argue that individuals had
the moral right and responsibility to disobey unjust laws. "The
question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of
extremist will we be."
King delivered his most famous speech
at the 1963 March on Washington, a protest for jobs and civil
rights held in Washington, DC. "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.'" This speech and the march, based on
the nonviolent philosophy of King, helped create the political
momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It made it
illegal to segregate public accommodations, such as buses, restaurants,
and hotels, as well as using race to discriminate in education
His success as a leader of the American
civil rights movement resulted in King being awarded the 1964
Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech he explains his philosophy, "I
believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the
final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated,
is stronger than evil triumphant."
In 1965, King also led the SCLC in organizing
a voting-rights protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
It was met with severe violence from the police, but was later
continued with 20,000 people ending in the march in front of the
Alabama capitol building. This march led to the signing of the
Voting Rights Act of 1965, which suspended the use of literacy
tests and other voter qualifications tests that were used to prevent
blacks from registering to vote.
Although his life was threatened many
times, King refused to give up his fight for freedom: "A
man who won't die for something is not fit to live."
King's efforts began to change focus
to include the economic difficulties of blacks throughout the
country. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
In 1968, this new focus led King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support
striking black garbage workers. While there, a sniper, James Earl
Ray, assassinated him.
King predicted that his memory would
live on, because, as he stated, "If you will protest courageously,
and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books
are written in future generations, the historians will have to
pause and say, 'There lived a great people - a black people -
who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.'"
Classroom Discussion Questions
How would Martin Luther King, Jr., have
answered the question, what is the meaning of life?
If King were still alive, what injustices
would he be protesting today? Support your answer.
If the United States was going to follow
the example of King, what options would they have in the current
situations in Iraq and North Korea? Or their reaction to September
The civil rights movement had more leaders
and philosophies than those of King. Who were some of the other
leaders and what were their philosophies? How did they compare
to King? Overall, who accomplished the most? Why?
If you could ask Martin Luther King,
Jr., one question, what would you ask and why?
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