Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929–1968
American orator and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of King's career.
King was the leader of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. His nonviolent approach to social reform and political activism, characterized by mass marches and large gatherings designed to demonstrate both the widespread acceptance of the tenets of civil rights and the barbarism of those who opposed them, contrasted with the confrontational methods espoused by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963) and the 1963 speech in which he declared "I Have a Dream" are considered the written landmarks of the movement. Today they are counted among history's great statements of human rights.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and was raised in a middle-class family. Following the lead of his father and grandfathers, he pursued a theological education. He studied the works of Walter Rauschenbusch, who contended that the church must work to undo social injustices, and those of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who espoused a philosophy of nonviolence. In the fall of 1951 he began his doctoral studies at Boston University and received his Ph. D. in systematic theology in 1955. That same year he rose to prominence in the civil rights movement by organizing a protest in support of Rosa Parks, a black woman who was arrested in Alabama for sitting in a "whites only" section of a public bus. Near the end of 1962 he began working to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. His leadership produced an agreement with the Justice Department that led to the desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains. In 1963 King helped plan a massive march on Washington, D.C., where an estimated 250,000 people were on hand to hear him present his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize. His campaign for voting rights, concentrated in Selma, Alabama, was met with violence from both police and civilians and resulted in President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. King continued his social campaigns until April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee.
King's written works reflect his heritage in the traditions of the southern black church as well as his knowledge of western philosophy. In Why We Can't Wait (1964), an account of his efforts to desegregate Birmingham, and Where Do We Go from Here? (1967), his response to the Black Power movement, King utilizes the Israelites' exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for the civil rights movement and suggests nonviolent solutions to the problem of social injustice. King further implements biblical theology, along with the philosophies of Gandhi and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Stride toward Freedom (1958), a discussion of the events leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, King paints a vision of a "promised land" of justice and racial equality. In the celebrated Letter from Birmingham City Jail, a commentary directed at his critics, King again displays his sermonic style and use of biblical allusions and rhetoric. Reminiscent of St. Paul's writings, the Letter has been described by Stephen Oates as "a classic in protest literature, the most elegant and learned expression of the goals and philosophy of the nonviolent movement ever written." Wesley T. Mott also commends King for harnessing "the profound emotional power of the old Negro sermon for purposes of social action."
Although often praised for their emotional power and widespread appeal, King's writings have been faulted for relying too heavily on rhetorical flourishes and for not offering concrete solutions to the social, political, and economic problems they address. In a review of Where Do We Go from Here? Andrew Kopkind commented that although King had worthy goals, he had "no real notion of how they are to be attained, or to what they may lead." In addition, nearly twenty-five years after his death, Clay-borne Carson—who had been engaged by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, to compile a collection of her husband's writings—announced that King may have plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation and other writings. These disclosures prompted scores of newspaper editorials and other responses arguing that the allegations had no bearing on King's contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1990 a New York Times editorial stated that King's "achievement glows unchallenged through the present shadow, [his] courage was not copied; and there was no plagiarism in his power."
How did King's extensive education affect his career as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement?
Although King forwent the life of a scholar by remaining at Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (where he did not have the opportunity to teach), his studies at Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University provided meat for his speeches, guided his decisions, and provided him with a means to relate to whites. His sermons and writings often alluded to both the scripture and the secular philosophy he had read. He constantly "universalized" the struggle for civil rights for African Americans by relating it to other historical events he had analyzed. He created an impression of great authority by employing artful rhetorical structures, and by filling those structures with references to great names and great ideas with which he had come in contact during his years of formal education: in deciding, in a given situation, which course of action to take, King often bore in mind Walter Rauschenbusch's social gospel, which emphasized the importance of good deeds in the world; the pessimistic Christianity of Reinhold Niebuhr, who contended that immoral institutions could corrupt moral individuals; and the philosophical method of Hegel. King's reference to these and other thinkers, in writing and in speech, appealed to white audiences, and gave King validity in their eyes. Other early influences, such as the black church, King would play up or play down, depending on whom he was trying to impress.
Contrast King's view of America during the last three years of his life with his view during the Birmingham and Selma campaigns.
Whether as a strategic choice, or out of a real belief in it, King, in his early campaigns, frequently invoked the American Dream. In speeches, he borrowed the language of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as that of the New Testament of the Bible. He talked about freedom in the conventional American sense of the word. Whenever he could, he violated racist local laws by referring to the federal laws with which they were at odds; he had far more qualms about disobeying a federal injunction than a state injunction. In his "I Have A Dream" speech, he presented America as a wasted opportunity, but not as an evil thing itself. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had passed, however, his view of the situation changed. Between racial tensions in the Northern ghettos, which the new legislation had done nothing to dispel, and the escalation of the Vietnam War, which seemed a conflict of capitalists against peasants, King began to believe that America's problems ran deeper than Jim Crow laws. He began to see social problems as rooted in economic iniquities. The whole system needed to be changed: the campaign that King was planning in the days before his assassination was a Poor People's March, in which the downtrodden, regardless of race, would unite and demand a redistribution of wealth.
Was King a leader in the right place at the right time, or can his success be attributed to his innate characteristics?
The Montgomery Bus Boycott effectively launched King's career as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. King was elected as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, not only because he showed promise as a leader, however, but because he was new to town, and thus not yet implicated in local political rivalries. And yet his success owed something to his charisma as a speaker, as well as to his authority and intelligence: he was young–only twenty-six–but something about him made others willing to forgo their own egos and let him lead. And this happened again and again throughout his career; often he appeared at the site of some preexisting sit-in, voter-registration drive, or protest march and was instantly held up as its leader. Then again, the speed with which people responded to King also probably reflected how hungry the Civil Rights Movement was for a leader, a symbol, a figurehead–someone to articulate the hopes and dreams behind events, and thus lend chaos to order. And later in King's career, his propensity for instant acceptance caused a backlash, especially among members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who felt that his popularity indicated a superficiality or an opportunistic streak, and that it allowed him effortlessly to cash in on the victories they labored to achieve. Ultimately, as with so many great leaders, King's effectiveness stemmed probably from a mix of both his internally generated power and other people's need of him as a figure.
Why did some of King's campaigns succeed, and others not?
How did King's relationship to the Johnson Administration differ from his relationship to the Kennedy Administration?
Toward what audience did King direct his "I Have a Dream" speech? How is this clear from the speech's language?
Characterize King's relationship to other leaders and organizations of the Civil Rights Movement.
Why was the church an important part of King's work as an activist? What did he gain by working with and through it?
What aspects of King's life are emphasized in mainstream America's remembrance of him?
If King had not been assassinated, what campaigns might he have organized in the 1970s and 1980s? Would the Civil Rights Movement perhaps fared differently during these years, or, after the victories of the sixties, was deceleration inevitable?