Martin Luther King Junior was given his name in remembrance of the great German Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The 16th century Luther had seen things which he felt were wrong in his society and did his best to put things right. His much later namesake, although living in very different circumstances, would do something very similar in mid 20th century America, and, like the original Luther, his influence has spread far beyond his own land and time.
King, born in 1929, like Martin Luther so long before, had theological training. In 1954 he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. This was at a time when racial segregation was common practice, especially in the southern, former slaveholding states. In 1946 race riots began in Alabama. King’s father was very vocal in his opposition to racial segregation and discrimination and this influenced the young King. Although black Americans were perceived by many as inferior, his mother assured her son that he was “as good as anyone”, yet he was forced to attend a different school to a white friend. In 1943 King had to give up his seat on a bus to a white person and this was the trigger which made him face up to the horrors of segregation. In 1947 President Truman’s government had said that black Americans were entitled to secure their civil rights. It took until 1960 before this became law, but in the meantime a number of changes had occurred such as the desegregation of schools.
In December 1955 Rosa Parks famously made her protest – refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. A few days later King became the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group set up in reaction to the protests caused by Rosa’s action. Within the year the buses in Montgomery became desegregated, but in the meantime King’s home was bombed. In 1957 The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by King, came together to decide upon a strategy to deal with remaining segregation. He would have been well aware of the success of nonviolent direct action in India and this is the stance he took.
In May 1957 he gives an important speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. A few months later in September 1957 the Civil Rights Act became law under President Eisenhower, but within weeks King is arrested for trespassing in Alabama, under a law which applied to Georgia. Incidents such as the burning of buses carrying civil rights activists followed.
In 1961 King was able to discuss Civil Rights with President Kennedy, but within a few weeks King, and others are arrested at a protest. Riots at places such as universities began to occur and in June 1963 state governor George Wallace attempts to prevent black students from entering the university of Alabama. So it goes on many marches, many protests, deaths of rioters and much acclaim for King and his campaign. When King was assassinated in 1968 he had become so revered that President Johnson ordered a day of national mourning.
King had been driven by his Christian principles that all are equal before God – such as Galatians s 3 v 28:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (New International Bible , 2010).
He saw all people as equal, but saw too that this was not happening in a racially divided America, and so he was driven to do something about it, just as Martin Luther had tried to do with Catholicism so many centuries earlier.
King was an eloquent speaker, and he used his skills to lead others toward the hope of a better tomorrow for their children. He had the advantage of being at one with other black Americans and fully sharing in their problems. He and his family were attacked, as were his followers, but they were neither deterred or defeated. At one point King was described as a Moses for the black people of America, but like Moses he did not reach the promised land. As in the case of Moses new leaders emerged in the non-violent protest groups, but none have ever quite equalled King with his charismatic and engaging style. Yet it drew him enemies. He was so able to move people to action that the head of the FBI Domestic Intelligence Division declared king to be America’s most dangerous Negro.
In 1963 King had made his most famous speech – the one remembered as ‘The Dream’. It wasn’t the speech king had prepared. Mahalia Jackson had sung a few minutes earlier and she called out to King ‘Tell ‘em about the dream Martin’, and he did . So eloquent, so close to what his audience wanted for their children, that at the end of his 16-minute speech people wept. Joan Baez described the speech as King letting ‘the breath of God thunder through him’.
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.
Only a tiny section of a much longer text, which also included his famous words:
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 today.
The former is a great principle, the latter was something every parent in that great crowd could relate to.
Martin Luther left a lasting legend. In the 1520s Luther gave the German people the New Testament in their own language. He was also so important, although not the only influence, upon the Protestant Reformation , which also led the Roman Catholic Church to reconsidered certain practices – the Counter Revolution. The changes made at that time continue.
In the same way the changes brought about by King and the American Civil Rights movement continue. Things in some ways have improved for black Americans since those days, and America has at present, a president who can claim to be a black American. Unfortunately there seems to be a negative reaction at present, but things will surely never return to the America of King’s youth, just as the work of the earlier Luther will never be undone:
While nothing is perfect or complete in the battle for civil rights, the efforts of King and those like him have, in fact, changed the country and the world, for the better.