Born on January 15, 1929, we celebrate a holiday in honor of a man who was not a president, nor an explorer, nor a saint. Rather he was a Baptist minister and an American leader of the 1960s civil rights movement named for the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther after his father was inspired by a trip to Luther’s Wittenberg.
Though President Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1977, it was not until 1986 that a day was established on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a federal holiday.
Martin Luther King Jr as Pastor
Though King had an earned doctorate, he was also an ordained minister, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers. From his biblical roots came many of the metaphors of his talks, the text of his presentations, and the cadence of his speech. He served as a minister starting in 1954 in Alabama, where afterward he led the boycott against segregation on buses that lasted 382 days. During this time, he was arrested, his house was bombed, and he suffered personal abuse.
Martin Luther King Jr as Activist
His involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement gave him his greatest visibility, as he began in 1957 non-violent civil disobedience, not unlike Gandhi‘s in India. Marches and protests were an effective means of accomplishing many of his goals.
This culminated in 1963 with the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and his most famous speech, entitled “I Have A Dream,” which he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.
The following year, in 1964, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest recipient. Though initially successful in the South, King also brought his movement to the North, specifically Chicago, in 1966, out of which grew equal opportunity programs.
Martin Luther King Jr as Speaker
In 1967 King delivered a comprehensive statement against the Vietnam War in his speech in New York City’s Riverside Church entitled “Beyond Vietnam.”
This was met with criticism from many activists and newspapers, though he argued that he was not merging the civil rights and peace movements.
Martin Luther King Jr at U.C. Berkeley
Even so, he continued to speak out against the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1967, a Spring day of 76 degrees just a month before the Summer of Love, he spoke at Sproul Plaza at the school I would later attend, the University of California at Berkeley. The Interfraternity Council had invited him to speak. While it did not get much press coverage, even the local San Francisco Chronicle only gave it a few paragraphs on Page 8; there were 7,000 people present. It was his last large-scale public address in the Bay Area.
Students were sitting on roofs and balconies to hear his speech. There were placards encouraging King to run for President the next year with running mate Spock. That’s Dr. Benjamin Spock, not Mr. Spock.
He told students:
“You, in a real sense, have been the conscience of the academic community and our nation.“
In 1968, King gave a prescient speech called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he said about God that:
“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. And 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! “
The next day, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
National riots followed until five days later; President Johnson declared a national day of mourning for King. Classes at Berkeley were suspended. 300,000 people attended his funeral.
Since his death, King has become a symbol of protest in the pursuit of racial justice, as he said in his seminal speech “I Have A Dream” using majestic spiritual “soul force” rather than physical force.
As I write this from Colorado Springs amidst snow on the ground, I am reminded of his charge at the end of that same speech:
“…from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado… let freedom ring.“
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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