by Clayborne Carson
of the world's best known advocates of non-violent social change strategies,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., synthesized ideas drawn from many different
cultural traditions. Born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, King's roots
were in the African-American Baptist church. He was the grandson of the
Rev. A. D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church and a founder of
Atlanta's NAACP chapter, and the son of Martin Luther King, Sr., who succeeded
Williams as Ebenezer's pastor and also became a civil rights leader. Although,
from an early age, King resented religious emotionalism and questioned
literal interpretations of scripture, he nevertheless greatly admired
black social gospel proponents such as his father who saw the church as
a instrument for improving the lives of African Americans. Morehouse College
president Benjamin Mays and other proponents of Christian social activism
influenced King's decision after his junior year at Morehouse to become
a minister and thereby serve society. His continued skepticism, however,
shaped his subsequent theological studies at Crozer Theological Seminary
in Chester, Pennsylvania, and at Boston University, where he received
a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955. Rejecting offers for academic
positions, King decided while completing his Ph. D. requirements to return
to the South and accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
in Montgomery, Alabama.
Although increasingly portrayed as the pre-eminent black spokesperson, King did not mobilize mass protest activity during the first five years after the Montgomery boycott ended. While King moved cautiously, southern black college students took the initiative, launching a wave of sit-in protests during the winter and spring of 1960. King sympathized with the student movement and spoke at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960, but he soon became the target of criticisms from SNCC activists determined to assert their independence. Even King's decision in October, 1960, to join a student sit-in in Atlanta did not allay the tensions, although presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's sympathetic telephone call to King's wife, Coretta Scott King, helped attract crucial black support for Kennedy's successful campaign. The 1961 "Freedom Rides," which sought to integrate southern transportation facilities, demonstrated that neither King nor Kennedy could control the expanding protest movement spearheaded by students. Conflicts between King and younger militants were also evident when both SCLC and SNCC assisted the Albany (Georgia) Movement's campaign of mass protests during December of 1961 and the summer of 1962.
After achieving few of his objectives in Albany, King recognized the need to organize a successful protest campaign free of conflicts with SNCC. During the spring of 1963, he and his staff guided mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where local white police officials were known from their anti-black attitudes. Clashes between black demonstrators and police using police dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines through the world. In June, President Kennedy reacted to the Birmingham protests and the obstinacy of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace by agreed to submit broad civil rights legislation to Congress (which eventually passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Subsequent mass demonstrations in many communities culminated in a march on August 28, 1963, that attracted more than 250,000 protesters to Washington, D. C. Addressing the marchers from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" oration.
During the year following the March, King's renown grew as he became Time magazine's Man of the Year and, in December 1964, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite fame and accolades, however, King faced many challenges to his leadership. Malcolm X's (1927-1965) message of self-defense and black nationalism expressed the discontent and anger of northern, urban blacks more effectively than did King's moderation. During the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, King and his lieutenants were able to keep intra-movement conflicts sufficiently under control to bring about passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but while participating in a 1966 march through Mississippi, King encountered strong criticism from "Black Power" proponent Stokely Carmichael. Shortly afterward white counter-protesters in the Chicago area physically assaulted King in the Chicago area during an unsuccessful effort to transfer non-violent protest techniques to the urban North. Despite these leadership conflicts, King remained committed to the use of non-violent techniques. Early in 1968, he initiated a Poor Peoples campaign designed to confront economic problems that had not been addressed by early civil rights reforms.
King's effectiveness in achieving his objectives was limited not merely by divisions among blacks, however, but also by the increasing resistance he encountered from national political leaders. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's already extensive efforts to undermine King's leadership were intensified during 1967 as urban racial violence escalated and King criticized American intervention in the Vietnam war. King had lost the support of many white liberals, and his relations with the Lyndon Johnson administration were at a low point when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while seeking to assist a garbage workers' strike in Memphis. After his death, King remained a controversial symbol of the African-American civil rights struggle, revered by many for his martyrdom on behalf of non-violence and condemned by others for his militancy and insurgent views.
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