Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.
That scripture defined the man and the movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the icon of the Civil Rights Movement—was committed to nonviolent resistance to racial discrimination based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. He preached peace, love, and unity as he fought for racial integration, labor, voting, and civil rights for African Americans in the 1950s and ’60s.
King began his career as a Baptist minister, carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather. “I was a preacher of the Gospel,” he said. “This was my first calling, and it remains my greatest commitment,” considering his activism an extension of his ministry, loving people as called by Christ.
The most prominent voice of the movement, King led marches, protests, boycotts, and sit-ins, all with a staunch commitment to nonviolent resistance, even in the face of vicious personal attacks. His home was bombed, and he was arrested and served time in jail, yet he continued to preach and practice love, peace, and racial harmony.
King’s activism began when he led the Montgomery, Alabama, 385-day bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, protesting the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation, sparking violence from both sides.
Inspired in part by the crusades of evangelist and friend Reverend Billy Graham, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to lead the nonviolent resistance movement, which he believed was the most effective way to achieve racial rights. King explained, “I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity” (Nobel lecture by MLK). Nonviolence, he contended, “seeks to win an opponent to friendship rather than to humiliate or defeat him.” (“Stride Toward Freedom”).
With King leading, the SCLC’s “Birmingham (Alabama) Campaign” in 1963 against racial segregation and economic injustice put nonviolent resistance into action—intentionally confronting unjust laws by sit-ins and marches. Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs against protesters—many, including King, were arrested and jailed. While there, MLK wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” considered by many to be a manifesto for the civil rights movement. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). As a result, Bull Connor lost his job, “Jim Crow” signs were removed, and public places became more available to African Americans.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 put MLK on the national stage with the largest demonstration up to that time at the Lincoln Memorial. It was peaceful, but hundreds of people were arrested, putting the civil rights movement at the forefront of the national reform agenda and bringing about passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. MLK delivered his famous speech:
“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.’… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …” (“I Have a Dream”).
MLK Jr. gave his prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” oratory supporting striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in March 1968. Prior to his speech, he received harassment and threats against his life from various sources.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Shortly thereafter, King delivered his last sermon at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, saying he wanted to be remembered as someone who tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love and serve humanity. “Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness” (Dream: The Words & Inspiration of MLK, Jr, 2007).
On April 4, 1968, at age 39, MLK Jr.’s life was tragically aborted. He was gunned down while standing on the balcony of his hotel.
During the 13 years of King’s leadership, according to his wife Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced” (TheKingCenter.org).
A larger-than-life figure, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a nonviolent activist for civil, economic, and racial rights, who accomplished much and whose eloquent speeches moved and inspired so many across the nation, and who still inspires and speaks to us today as we commemorate his birthday.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a national holiday signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and becoming effective in 1986, hearkens back to his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
“No, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (MLK, Jr.).