Dr. Martin Luther King: Courageous Citizen, Clergyman and Civil Rights Champion

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Students and most workers across America happily receive a day off from school and work to celebrate MLK Day.  But as we rush to enjoy a long weekend, perhaps we can consider for a moment the who and why behind this Federal holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The second child, though the first son, he was born into a family whose heritage was deeply rooted in Christian faith. His father was a pastor as was his grandfather, the Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.  When he married Coretta Scott on the lawn of her parents’ home, his father performed the ceremony and his brother, the Reverend A.D. King, was his best man.

King graduated from Morehouse College, where he took his first steps toward political activism; in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution he wrote that African Americans were “entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens”.  After leaving Morehouse, King continued his theological education and in 1951 began his doctoral studies at Boston University’s School of Theology.  He flourished as a student and honed his oratory skills while preaching at Boston area churches and at Ebenezer during school breaks.

King became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and during his time there he led the group formed to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  Using his gift of leadership combined with his religious background and academic training, Dr. King constructed an effective strategy to mobilize black churches and garner support from the white community for the civil rights movement.  He studied Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent protest, and after a trip to India wrote: “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom”.

Dr. King endured violence against himself and his family, arrest and time in jail and an assassination attempt as he led the struggle for the equal treatment of all Americans and to shine the light of day on injustice. His dedication and perseverance helped to bring about major civil rights legislation under President Kennedy.

He is most remembered for the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered on August 28, 1963 on the Washington Mall to a crowd of nearly 200,000.  The entire speech is powerful, but the closing remarks are an echo of the words of Jesus “you ought always to pray and not lose hope” and should inspire all Americans.

Dr. King passionately declared:

“I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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.’” “…when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last’”.

April 3, 1968, he spoke, again with a biblical reference: “I’ve been to the mountaintop [and] I’ve seen the Promised Land.” He continued, “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” (a reference to Moses whom God allowed to see the Promised Land, though he never entered it). The following evening, as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

He lived a life of courage and left a legacy of hope.

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