"Martin Luther King" and "MLK" redirect here. For other uses, see Martin Luther King (disambiguation) and MLK (disambiguation).
|Martin Luther King Jr.|
King in 1964
|1st President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference|
|Preceded by||Inaugural holder|
|Succeeded by||Ralph Abernathy|
|Born||Michael King Jr.|
(1929-01-15)January 15, 1929
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||April 4, 1968(1968-04-04) (aged 39)|
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
|Cause of death||Gunshot head wound|
|Spouse(s)||Coretta Scott (m. 1953)|
|Known for||Civil rights movement, Peace movement|
|Monuments||Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial|
Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and in 1957 became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In his final years he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled "Beyond Vietnam".
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People's Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee; riots followed in many U.S. cities. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
Early life and education
King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King's legal name at birth was Michael King, and his father was also born Michael King, but the elder King changed both his and his son's names around 1934. The elder King would later state that "Michael" was a mistake by the attending physician to his son's birth, and the younger King's birth certificate was altered to read "Martin Luther King Jr." in 1957. King's parents were both African-American, and he also had Irish ancestry through his paternal great-grandfather.
King was a middle child, between an older sister, Christine King Farris, and a younger brother, A.D. King. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind, and he enjoyed singing and music. His mother was an accomplished organist and choir leader who took him to various churches to sing, and he received attention for singing "I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus". King later became a member of the junior choir in his church.
King said that his father regularly whipped him until he was fifteen; a neighbor reported hearing the elder King telling his son "he would make something of him even if he had to beat him to death." King saw his father's proud and fearless protests against segregation, such as King Sr. refusing to listen to a traffic policeman after being referred to as "boy," or stalking out of a store with his son when being told by a shoe clerk that they would have to "move to the rear" of the store to be served.
When King was a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family's home. When the boys were six, they started school: King had to attend a school for African Americans and the other boy went to one for whites (public schools were among the facilities segregated by state law). King lost his friend because the child's father no longer wanted the boys to play together.
King suffered from depression throughout much of his life. In his adolescent years, he initially felt resentment against whites due to the "racial humiliation" that he, his family, and his neighbors often had to endure in the segregated South. At the age of 12, shortly after his maternal grandmother died, King blamed himself and jumped out of a second-story window, but survived.
King was skeptical of many of Christianity's claims. At the age of 13, he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school. From this point, he stated, "doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly." However, he later concluded that the Bible has "many profound truths which one cannot escape" and decided to enter the seminary.
Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. He became known for his public speaking ability and was part of the school's debate team. King became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal in 1942 when he was 13. During his junior year, he won first prize in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks Club in Dublin, Georgia. Returning home to Atlanta by bus, he and his teacher were ordered by the driver to stand so that white passengers could sit down. King initially refused, but complied after his teacher told him that he would be breaking the law if he did not submit. King said that during this incident, he was "the angriest I have ever been in my life." A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades of high school.
During King's junior year in high school, Morehouse College, a respected historically black college, announced that it would accept any high school juniors who could pass its entrance exam. At that time, many students had abandoned further studies to enlist in World War II. Due to this, Morehouse was eager to fill its classrooms. At the age of 15, King passed the exam and entered Morehouse. The summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, the 18-year-old King chose to enter the ministry. He had concluded that the church offered the most assuring way to answer "an inner urge to serve humanity." King's "inner urge" had begun developing, and he made peace with the Baptist Church, as he believed he would be a "rational" minister with sermons that were "a respectful force for ideas, even social protest."
In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. in sociology and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951. King's father fully supported his decision to continue his education.
While attending Crozer, King was joined by Walter McCall, a former classmate at Morehouse. At Crozer, King was elected president of the student body. The African-American students of Crozer for the most part conducted their social activity on Edwards Street. King became fond of the street because a classmate had an aunt who prepared collard greens for them, which they both relished.
King once reproved another student for keeping beer in his room, saying they had shared responsibility as African Americans to bear "the burdens of the Negro race." For a time, he was interested in Walter Rauschenbusch's "social gospel." In his third year at Morehouse, King became romantically involved with the white daughter of an immigrant German woman who worked as a cook in the cafeteria. The daughter had been involved with a professor prior to her relationship with King. King planned to marry her, but friends advised against it, saying that an interracial marriage would provoke animosity from both blacks and whites, potentially damaging his chances of ever pastoring a church in the South. King tearfully told a friend that he could not endure his mother's pain over the marriage and broke the relationship off six months later. He continued to have lingering feelings toward the women he left; one friend was quoted as saying, "He never recovered."
King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents' house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. They became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963). During their marriage, King limited Coretta's role in the civil rights movement, expecting her to be a housewife and mother.
At age 25 in 1954, King was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
See also: Martin Luther King Jr. authorship issues
King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Ph.D. degree on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation (initially supervised by Edgar S. Brightman and, upon the latter's death, by Lotan Harold DeWolf) titled A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. While pursuing doctoral studies, King worked as an assistant minister at Boston's historic Twelfth Baptist Church with Rev. William Hunter Hester. Hester was an old friend of King's father, and was an important influence on King.
Decades later, an academic inquiry in October 1991 concluded that portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly. However, "[d]espite its finding, the committee said that 'no thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King's doctoral degree,' an action that the panel said would serve no purpose." The committee also found that the dissertation still "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship." A letter is now attached to the copy of King's dissertation held in the university library, noting that numerous passages were included without the appropriate quotations and citations of sources. Significant debate exists on how to interpret King's plagiarism.
Montgomery bus boycott, 1955
Main articles: Montgomery bus boycott and Jim Crow laws § Public arena
In March 1955, Claudette Colvin—a black fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in Montgomery—ignored Jim Crow Laws when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man; the laws were local regulations in the Southern United States that enforced racial segregation. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case; E. D. Nixon and Clifford Durr decided to wait for a better case to pursue because the incident involved a minor.
Nine months later on December 1, 1955, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The two incidents led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which was urged and planned by Nixon and led by King. The boycott lasted for 385 days, and the situation became so tense that King's house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which concluded with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. King's role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. One of the group's inspirations was the crusades of evangelist Billy Graham, who befriended King after he attended a Graham crusade in New York City in 1957. King led the SCLC until his death. The SCLC's 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was the first time King addressed a national audience. Other civil rights leaders involved in the SCLC with King included: James Bevel, Allen Johnson, Curtis W. Harris, Walter E. Fauntroy, C. T. Vivian, Andrew Young, The Freedom Singers, Charles Evers, Cleveland Robinson, Randolph Blackwell, Annie Bell Robinson Devine, Charles Kenzie Steele, Alfred Daniel Williams King, Benjamin Hooks, Aaron Henry and Bayard Rustin.
On September 20, 1958, King was signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Blumstein's department store in Harlem when he narrowly escaped death. Izola Curry—a mentally ill black woman who thought that King was conspiring against her with communists—stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. After emergency surgery by Aubre de Lambert Maynard, Emil Naclerio and John W. V. Cordice, King was hospitalized for several weeks. Curry was later found mentally incompetent to stand trial. In 1959, he published a short book called The Measure of A Man, which contained his sermons "What is Man?" and "The Dimensions of a Complete Life." The sermons argued for man's need for God's love and criticized the racial injustices of Western civilization.
Harry Wachtel—who joined King's legal advisor Clarence B. Jones in defending four ministers of the SCLC in the libel case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan over the newspaper advertisement "Heed Their Rising Voices"—founded a tax-exempt fund to cover the expenses of the suit and to assist the nonviolent civil rights movement through a more effective means of fundraising. This organization was named the "Gandhi Society for Human Rights." King served as honorary president for the group. Displeased with the pace of President Kennedy's addressing the issue of segregation, King and the Gandhi Society produced a document in 1962 calling on the President to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and use an executive order to deliver a blow for civil rights as a kind of Second Emancipation Proclamation. Kennedy did not execute the order.
The FBI was under written directive from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy when it began tapping King's telephone in the fall of 1963. Kennedy was concerned that allegations of communists in the SCLC—if they were made public—would derail the administration's civil rights initiatives. He warned King to discontinue these associations and later felt compelled to issue the written directive that authorized the FBI to wiretap King and other SCLC leaders. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared the civil rights movement and investigated the allegations of communist infiltration. When no evidence emerged to support this, the FBI used the incidental details caught on tape over the next five years in attempts to force King out of his leadership position, in the COINTELPRO program.
King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by Southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that the civil rights movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.
King organized and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King and the SCLC put into practice many of the principles of the Christian Left and applied the tactics of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out. There were often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities, who sometimes turned violent.
Throughout his participation in the civil rights movement, King was criticized by many groups. This included opposition by more militant blacks such as Nation of Islam member Malcolm X.Stokely Carmichael was a separatist and disagreed with King's plea for racial integration because he considered it an insult to a uniquely African-American culture.Omali Yeshitela urged Africans to remember the history of violent European colonization and how power was not secured by Europeans through integration, but by violence and force.
Main article: Albany Movement
The Albany Movement was a desegregation coalition formed in Albany, Georgia, in November 1961. In December, King and the SCLC became involved. The movement mobilized thousands of citizens for a broad-front nonviolent attack on every aspect of segregation within the city and attracted nationwide attention. When King first visited on December 15, 1961, he "had planned to stay a day or so and return home after giving counsel." The following day he was swept up in a mass arrest of peaceful demonstrators, and he declined bail until the city made concessions. According to King, "that agreement was dishonored and violated by the city" after he left town.
King returned in July 1962 and was given the option of forty-five days in jail or a $178 fine (equivalent to $1,400 in 2017); he chose jail. Three days into his sentence, Police Chief Laurie Pritchett discreetly arranged for King's fine to be paid and ordered his release. "We had witnessed persons being kicked off lunch counter stools ... ejected from churches ... and thrown into jail ... But for the first time, we witnessed being kicked out of jail." It was later acknowledged by the King Center that Billy Graham was the one who bailed King out of jail during this time.
After nearly a year of intense activism with few tangible results, the movement began to deteriorate. King requested a halt to all demonstrations and a "Day of Penance" to promote nonviolence and maintain the moral high ground. Divisions within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated efforts. Though the Albany effort proved a key lesson in tactics for King and the national civil rights movement, the national media was highly critical of King's role in the defeat, and the SCLC's lack of results contributed to a growing gulf between the organization and the more radical SNCC. After Albany, King sought to choose engagements for the SCLC in which he could control the circumstances, rather than entering into pre-existing situations.
Main article: Birmingham campaign
In April 1963, the SCLC began a campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign used nonviolent but intentionally confrontational tactics, developed in part by Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. Black people in Birmingham, organizing with the SCLC, occupied public spaces with marches and sit-ins, openly violating laws that they considered unjust.
King's intent was to provoke mass arrests and "create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." However, the campaign's early volunteers did not succeed in shutting down the city, or in drawing media attention to the police's actions. Over the concerns of an uncertain King, SCLC strategist James Bevel changed the course of the campaign by recruiting children and young adults to join in the demonstrations.Newsweek called this strategy a Children's Crusade.
During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene "Bull" Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs against protesters, including children. Footage of the police response was broadcast on national television news and dominated the nation's attention, shocking many white Americans and consolidating black Americans behind the movement. Not all of the demonstrators were peaceful, despite the avowed intentions of the SCLC. In some cases, bystanders attacked the police, who responded with force. King and the SCLC were criticized for putting children in harm's way. But the campaign was a success: Connor lost his job, the "Jim Crow" signs came down, and public places became more open to blacks. King's reputation improved immensely.
King was arrested and jailed early in the campaign—his 13th arrest out of 29. From his cell, he composed the now-famous Letter from Birmingham Jail which responds to calls on the movement to pursue legal channels for social change. King argues that the crisis of racism is too urgent, and the current system too entrenched: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." He points out that the Boston Tea Party, a celebrated act of rebellion in the American colonies, was illegal civil disobedience, and that, conversely, "everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal'." King also expresses his frustration with white moderates and clergymen too timid to oppose an unjust system:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistic-ally believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."
St. Augustine, Florida
Main article: St. Augustine movement
In March 1964, King and the SCLC joined forces with Robert Hayling's then-controversial movement in St. Augustine, Florida. Hayling's group had been affiliated with the NAACP but was forced out of the organization for advocating armed self-defense alongside nonviolent tactics. However, the pacifist SCLC accepted them. King and the SCLC worked to bring white Northern activists to St. Augustine, including a delegation of rabbis and the 72-year-old mother of the governor of Massachusetts, all of whom were arrested. During June, the movement marched nightly through the city, "often facing counter demonstrations by the Klan, and provoking violence that garnered national media attention." Hundreds of the marchers were arrested and jailed. During the course of this movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
Main article: Selma to Montgomery marches
In December 1964, King and the SCLC joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, where the SNCC had been working on voter registration for several months. A local judge issued an injunction that barred any gathering of 3 or more people affiliated with the SNCC, SCLC, DCVL, or any of 41 named civil rights leaders. This injunction temporarily halted civil rights activity until King defied it by speaking at Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965. During the 1965 march to Montgomery, Alabama, violence by state police and others against the peaceful marchers resulted in much publicity, making Alabama's racism visible nationwide.
New York City
On February 6, 1964, King delivered the inaugural speech of a lecture series initiated at the New School called "The American Race Crisis." No audio record of his speech has been found, but in August 2013, almost 50 years later, the school discovered an audiotape with 15 minutes of a question-and-answer session that followed King's address. In these remarks, King referred to a conversation he had recently had with Jawaharlal Nehru in which he compared the sad condition of many African Americans to that of India's untouchables.
March on Washington, 1963
Main article: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
King, representing the SCLC, was among the leaders of the "Big Six" civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place on August 28, 1963. The other leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were Roy Wilkins from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Whitney Young, National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James L. Farmer Jr., of the Congress of Racial Equality.
Bayard Rustin's open homosexuality, support of democratic socialism, and his former ties to the Communist Party USA caused many white and African-American leaders to demand King distance himself from Rustin, which King agreed to do. However, he did collaborate in the 1963 March on Washington, for which Rustin was the primary logistical and strategic organizer. For King, this role was another which courted controversy, since he was one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of United States President John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. Kennedy initially opposed the march outright, because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation. However, the organizers were firm that the march would proceed. With the march going forward, the Kennedys decided it was important to work to ensure its success. President Kennedy was concerned the turnout would be less than 100,000. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of additional church leaders and the UAW union to help mobilize demonstrators for the cause.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks in the southern U.S. and an opportunity to place organizers' concerns and grievances squarely before the seat of power in the nation's capital. Organizers intended to denounce the federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and blacks. However, the group acquiesced to presidential pressure and influence, and the event ultimately took on a far less strident tone. As a result, some civil rights activists felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington", and the Nation of Islam forbade its members from attending the march.
The march did, however, make specific demands: an end to racial segregation in public schools; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers (equivalent to $16 in 2017); and self-government for Washington, D.C., then governed by congressional committee. Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than a quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington, D.C.'s history.
King delivered a 17-minute speech, later known as "I Have a Dream". In the speech's most famous passage—in which he departed from his prepared text, possibly at the prompting of Mahalia Jackson, who shouted behind him, "Tell them about the dream!"—King said:
I say to you today, my friends, so 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.
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.'
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
"I Have a Dream" came to be regarded as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory. The March, and especially King's speech, helped put civil rights at the top of the agenda of reformers in the United States and facilitated passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The original typewritten copy of the speech, including King's handwritten notes on it, was discovered in 1984 to be in the hands of George Raveling, the first African-American basketball coach of the University of Iowa. In 1963, Raveling, then 26, was standing near the podium, and immediately after the oration, impulsively asked King if he could have his copy of the speech. He got it.
Selma voting rights movement and "Bloody Sunday", 1965
Main article: Selma to Montgomery marches
Acting on James Bevel's call for a march from Selma to Montgomery, King, Bevel, and the SCLC, in partial collaboration with SNCC, attempted to organize the march to the state's capital. The first attempt to march on March 7, 1965, was aborted because of mob and police violence against the demonstrators. This day has become known as Bloody Sunday and was a major turning point in the effort to gain public support for the civil rights movement. It was the clearest demonstration up to that time of the dramatic potential of King's nonviolence strategy. King, however, was not present.
King met with officials in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration on March 5 in order to request an injunction against any prosecution of the demonstrators. He did not attend the march due to church duties, but he later wrote, "If I had any idea that the state troopers would use the kind of brutality they did, I would have felt compelled to give up my church duties altogether to lead the line." Footage of police brutality against the protesters was broadcast extensively and aroused national public outrage.
King next attempted to organize a march for March 9. The SCLC petitioned for an injunction in federal court against the State of Alabama; this was denied and the judge issued an order blocking the march until after a hearing. Nonetheless, King led marchers on March 9 to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, then held a short prayer session before turning the marchers around and asking them to disperse so as not to violate the court order. The unexpected ending of this second march aroused the surprise and anger of many within the local movement. The march finally went ahead fully on March 25, 1965. At the conclusion of the march on the steps of the state capitol, King delivered a speech that became known as "How Long, Not Long." In it, King stated that equal rights for African Americans could not be far away, "because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."[a]
Chicago open housing movement, 1966
Main article: Chicago Freedom Movement
In 1966, after several successes in the south, King, Bevel, and others in the civil rights organizations took the movement to the North, with Chicago as their first destination. King and Ralph Abernathy, both from the middle class, moved into a building at 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue, in the slums of North Lawndale on Chicago's West Side, as an educational experience and to demonstrate their support and empathy for the poor.
The SCLC formed a coalition with CCCO, Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, an organization founded by Albert Raby, and the combined organizations' efforts were fostered under the aegis of the Chicago Freedom Movement. During that spring, several white couple/black couple tests of real estate offices uncovered racial steering: discriminatory processing of housing requests by couples who were exact matches in income, background, number of children, and other attributes. Several larger marches were planned and executed: in Bogan, Belmont Cragin, Jefferson Park, Evergreen Park (a suburb southwest of Chicago), Gage Park, Marquette Park, and others.
King later stated and Abernathy wrote that the movement received a worse reception in Chicago than in the South. Marches, especially the one through Marquette Park on August 5, 1966, were met by thrown bottles and screaming throngs. Rioting seemed very possible. King's beliefs militated against his staging a violent event, and he negotiated an agreement with Mayor Richard J. Daley to cancel a march in order to avoid the violence that he feared would result. King was hit by a brick during one march but continued to lead marches in the face of personal danger.
When King and his allies returned to the South, they left Jesse Jackson, a seminary student who had previously joined the movement in the South, in charge of their organization. Jackson continued their struggle for civil rights by organizing the Operation Breadbasket movement that targeted chain stores that did not deal fairly with blacks.
A 1967 CIA document declassified in 2017 downplayed King's role in the "black militant situation" in Chicago, with a source stating that King “sought at least constructive, positive projects.”
Opposition to the Vietnam War
See also: Opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War
|You can listen to the speech, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam", by Martin Luther King here.|
King long opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War, but at first avoided the topic in public speeches in order to avoid the interference with civil rights goals that criticism of President Johnson's policies might have created. However, at the urging of SCLC's former Director of Direct Action and now the head of the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, James Bevel, King eventually agreed to publicly oppose the war as opposition was growing among the American public. During an April 4, 1967, appearance at the New York City Riverside Church—exactly one year before his death—King delivered a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." He spoke strongly against the U.S.'s role in the war, arguing that the U.S. was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an American colony" and calling the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He also connected the war with economic injustice, arguing that the country needed serious moral change:
Of all the silly claims sometimes made by atheists these days, surely one of the silliest is that Christianity was in no way determinative of the politics of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just take Christopher Hitchens's claim that, on account of King's commitment to nonviolence, in "no real as opposed to nominal sense ... was he a Christian." Wherever King got his understanding of nonviolence from, argues Hitchens, it simply could not have been from Christianity because Christianity is inherently violent.
The best response that I can give to such claims is turn to that wonderfully candid account of the diverse influences that shaped King's understanding of nonviolence in his Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, and then demonstrate how his Christianity gave these influences in peculiarly Christ-like form.
King reports as a college student he was moved when he read Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience. Thoreau convinced him that anyone who passively accepts evil, even oppressed people who cooperate with an evil system, are as implicated with evil as those who perpetrate it. Accordingly, if we are to be true to our conscience and true to God, a righteous man has no alternative but to refuse to cooperate with an evil system.
In the early stages of the boycott of the buses in Montgomery, King drew on Thoreau to help him understand why the boycott was the necessary response to a system of evil. But Thoreau was not the only resource King had to draw on. He had heard A.J. Muste speak when he was a student at Crozer, but while he was deeply moved by Muste's account of pacifism, he continued to think that war, though never a positive good, might be necessary as an alternative to a totalitarian system.
During his studies at Crozer he also travelled to Philadelphia to hear a sermon by Dr Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, who had just returned from a trip to India. Dr Johnson spoke of the life and times of Gandhi so eloquently King subsequently bought and read books on or by Gandhi.
The influence of Gandhi, however, was qualified by his reading of Reinhold Niebuhr and, in particular, Moral Man and Immoral Society. Niebuhr's argument that there is no intrinsic moral difference between violent and nonviolent resistance left King in a state of confusion. King's doctoral work made him more critical of what he characterizes as Niebuhr's overemphasis on the corruption of human nature. Indeed, King observes that Niebuhr had not balanced his pessimism concerning human nature with an optimism concerning divine nature.
But King's understanding as well as his commitment to nonviolence was finally not the result of these intellectual struggles. No doubt his philosophical and theological work served to prepare him for what he was to learn in the early days of the struggle in Montgomery. But King's understanding of nonviolence was formed in the midst of struggle for justice, which required him to draw on the resources of the African-American church.
King was, moreover, well aware of how he came to be committed to nonviolence not simply as a strategy but as, in Gandhi's words, his experiment with truth. For example, in an article entitled "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" for The Christian Century in 1960, King says by being called to be a spokesman for his people, he was:
"driven back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method. The experience of Montgomery did more to clarify my thinking on the question of nonviolence than all of the books I had read. As the days unfolded I became more and more convinced of the power of nonviolence. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many issues I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action."
In the same article, King observes that he was also beginning to believe that the method of nonviolence may even be relevant to international relations. Yet he was still under the influence of Niebuhr, or at least at this stage in his thinking he could not escape Niebuhr's language. Thus, even after he argues that nonviolence is the only alternative we have when faced by the destructiveness of modern weapons, he declares:
"I am no doctrinaire pacifist. I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism. Moreover, I see the pacifist position not as sinless but as the lesser of evil in the circumstances. Therefore I do not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian nonpacifist confronts."
That would not, however, be his final position. In an article entitled "Showdown for Nonviolence," which was published after his assassination, King says plainly:
"I'm committed to nonviolence absolutely. I'm just not going to kill anybody, whether it's in Vietnam or here ... I plan to stand by nonviolence because I have found it to be a philosophy of life that regulates not only my dealings in the struggle for racial justice but also my dealings with people with my own self. I will still be faithful to nonviolence."
Thus Martin Luther King, Jr., the advocate of nonviolence, became nonviolent. Which means it is all the more important, therefore, to understand what King understood by nonviolence.
What does it mean to be nonviolent?
In a 1957 article for The Christian Century entitled "Nonviolence and Racial Justice," King developed with admirable clarity the five points that he understood to be central to Gandhi's practice of nonviolent resistance. The next year saw the publication of Stride Toward Freedom, in which he expanded the five points to six. Those six points of emphasis are:
- that nonviolent resistance is not cowardly, but is a form of resistance;
- that advocates of nonviolence do not want to humiliate those they oppose;
- that the battle is against forces of evil not individuals;
- that nonviolence requires the willingness to suffer;
- that love is central to nonviolence; and,
- that the universe is on the side of justice.
Though these points of emphasis are usefully distinguished, they are clearly interdependent. This is particularly apparent given King's stress in Stride Toward Freedom that nonviolence requires the willingness to accept suffering rather than to retaliate against their enemies. King approvingly quotes Gandhi's message to his countrymen ("Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood") and then asks what could possibly justify the willingness to accept but never inflict violence. He answers that such a position is justified "in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive."
King identified Gandhi as the primary source of his understanding of the "method" and "philosophy of nonviolence." But he could not help but read Gandhi through the lens of the gospel, as his use of the word "redemption" makes clear. Gandhi read Tolstoy, who convinced him not only that the Sermon on the Mount required nonviolence, but equally importantly, Gandhi says he learned from Tolstoy that the willingness to suffer wrong is finally a more powerful force than violence. Gandhi's understanding of satyagraha, the belief that truth and suffering have the power to transform one's opponent, was Gandhi's way to translate Tolstoy in a Hindu idiom.
King read Gandhi and learned as a Christian how to read the Sermon on the Mount; or, to put it more accurately, he learned to trust the faith of the African-American church in Jesus to sustain the hard discipline of nonviolence. In King's own words:
"It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negro to protest with the creative weapon of love. As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in is struggle for freedom."
Gandhi's "method," moreover, gave King what he needed to challenge Niebuhr's argument that a strong distinction must be drawn between non-resistance and nonviolent resistance. Niebuhr had argued that Jesus's admonition not to resist the evildoer in Matthew 5:38-42 means any attempt to act against evil is forbidden. Niebuhr, therefore, maintained that Gandhi's attempt to use nonviolence for political gains was really a form of coercion. Through his study of Gandhi, King says he learned that Niebuhr's position involved a serious distortion because:
"true pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart."
King acknowledges that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God, but "even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness." For King, however, it is the cross that is:
"the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is the symbol of God's triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation."
Love, therefore, becomes the hallmark of nonviolent resistance requiring that the resister, not only refuse to shoot his opponent, but also refuse to hate him. Nonviolent resistance is meant to bring an end to hate by being the very embodiment of agape.
King seemed never to tire of an appeal to Anders Nygren's distinction between eros, philia, and agape to make the point that the love that shapes nonviolent resistance is one that is disciplined by the refusal to distinguish between worthy and unworthy people. Rather agape begins by loving others for their own sake, which requires that we "have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution."
Such a love means that nonviolent resistance seeks not to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win a friend. The protests that may take the form of boycotts and other non-cooperative modes of behaviour are not ends in themselves, but rather attempts to awaken in the opponent a sense of shame and repentance. The end of nonviolent resistance is redemption and reconciliation with those who have been the oppressor. Love overwhelms hate, making possible the creation of a beloved community that would otherwise be impossible.
Accordingly nonviolent resistance is not directed against people, but against forces of evil. Those who happen to be doing evil are as victimized by the evil they do as those who are the object of their oppression. From the perspective of nonviolence, King argued that the enemy is not the white people of Montgomery, but injustice itself. The object of the boycott of the buses was not to defeat white people, but to defeat the injustice that mars their lives. The means must therefore be commensurate with the end that is sought. For the end cannot justify the means, particularly if the means involve the use of violence, because the "end is preexistent in the means." This is particularly the case if the end of nonviolence is the creation of a "beloved community."
It should now be apparent why nonviolent resistance is "not a method for cowards; it does resist." There is nothing passive about nonviolence since it requires active engagement against evil. Courage is required for those who would act nonviolently, but it is not the courage of the hero. Rather it is the courage that draws its strength from the willingness to listen. For the willingness to listen is the necessary condition for the organization necessary for a new community to come into existence. A people must exist whose unwillingness to resort to violence creates imaginative and creative modes of resistance to injustice.
King not only learned what nonviolence is, but he learned to be nonviolent because he saw how nonviolence gave a new sense of worth to those who followed him in Montgomery. Stride Toward Freedom begins, therefore, with the lovely observation that though he must make frequent use of the pronoun "I" to tell the story of Montgomery, it is not a story in which one actor is central. Rather it is the "chronicle of 50,000 Negroes who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth."
King's account of nonviolence reflected what he learned through the struggle in Montgomery. He never wavered from that commitment. If anything the subsequent movement in Birmingham, the rise of Black Power and the focus on the poor only served to deepen his commitment to nonviolence. But these later developments also exposed challenges to his understanding of the practice of nonviolence that should not be avoided.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in as well as practiced nonviolent resistance because he was sure that to do so was to be in harmony with the grain of the universe. The willingness to suffer without retaliation depended on that deep conviction.
King certainly drew on the rhetoric of American democratic traditions to sustain the goals of nonviolence, but American ideals were not the basis of his hope. Rather, as John Howard Yoder contends, King and Gandhi shared "a fundamental religious cosmology" based on the conviction that unearned suffering can be redemptive. This is a Hindu truth Gandhi recovered, but Yoder observes that it is also "a Christian truth, although not all the meaning of the cross in the Christian message is rendered adequately by stating it in terms that sound like Gandhi." The Christian truth that Gandhi's understanding of satyagraha does not adequately express, according to Yoder, is "if the Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power, then no calculation of other non-lamb roads to power can be ultimately authentic."
According to Yoder, because King understood nonviolence to be the bearing of Jesus's cross, King was able to choose the path of vulnerable faithfulness with full awareness that such a path would be costly. King operated with the conviction that the victory had been won, but also with the realization that the mopping up might take longer than had been expected.
Yet the success of Montgomery meant King could not avoid becoming the leader of a mass movement. To sustain the movement with a people who were not committed to nonviolence as King was committed meant results had to be forthcoming.
For example, in an article entitled "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom," in which King defended nonviolence amid the riots of the 1960s as well as the stridency of the Black Power movement, he acknowledged the importance of results for sustaining the movement. Results are necessary because King understood well that he could not assume that everyone who follows him understood that nonviolence is not simply a tactic to get what you want, but it is a way of life. But results can take months or even years, which means those committed to nonviolence must engage in continuing education of the community to help them understand how the sacrifices they are making are necessary to bring about the desired changes. Accordingly, King suggests that the most powerful nonviolent weapon, but also the most demanding, is the need for organization. He observes:
"to produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units might be political, as in the case of voters' leagues and political parties, they may be economic units such as groups of tenants who join forces to form a tenant union or to organize a rent strike; or they may be laboring units of persons who are seeking employment and wage increases. More and more, the civil rights movement will become engaged in the task of organizing people into permanent groups to protect their own interests and to produce change in their behalf. This is a tedious task which may take years, but the results are more permanent and meaningful."
Yet Stewart Burns suggests King discovered that nothing fails like success. King, and those close to him in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had been captured by the need to produce results. They had no time for the "tedious" work of organization. The movement had become a trap. Every "success" required upping the ante in the hope that those who followed King would continue to do so even if they did not share his commitment to nonviolence.
In Montgomery, King had been able to rely on the black churches and, in particular, the women leaders of those churches for the "organizing miracle" that made Montgomery possible. But the further he moved beyond Montgomery, the more he had to depend on results in the hope that through results community might come into existence. King was well aware of this dilemma, as is evident from his anguished reflections on the destructive riots in Watts:
"Watts was not only a crisis for Los Angeles and the Northern cities of our nation: It was a crisis for the nonviolent movement. I tried desperately to maintain a nonviolent atmosphere in which our nation could undergo the tremendous period of social change which confronts us, but this was mainly dependent on the obtaining of tangible progress and victories, if those of us who counsel reason and love were to maintain our leadership. However, the cause was not lost. In spite of pockets of hostility in ghetto areas such as Watts, there was still overwhelming acceptance of the ideal of nonviolence."
But as King well knew, nonviolence is not an "ideal" but must be embedded in the habits of a people across time that make possible the long and patient work of transformation necessary for the reconciliation of enemies. King was, after all, a creature of the African-American church.
In the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," even as he expresses his disappointment concerning the failure of the church he declares, "Yes, I love the church." For understandable reasons, however, King did not see that his understanding of nonviolence required the existence of an alternative community that could sustain the hard and "tedious" work of organization.
From Yoder's perspective, therefore, some of the later tactics of the civil rights movement designed to secure results without transformation of those against whom the protest was directed may have made King vulnerable to Niebuhr's critique that nonviolent resistance is but disguised violence. King's attempt to combine nonviolent resistance with a social movement that aimed to make America a "beloved community" did not fundamentally challenge the Constantinian assumptions that America is a Christian nation.
Christian nonviolence presupposes the resources of faith. King assumed those resources were available in Montgomery, and they were. However, the more he became a "civil rights leader" rather a black Baptist minister - two offices that were indistinguishable in his own mind - he could not presume his followers shared his faith, making the demand for results all the more important. Yet King was sustained by his faith. In the last speech he gave before he was assassinated King began observing:
"I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled. Life is a continual story of shattered dreams. Mahatma Gandhi labored for years and years for the independence of his people. But Gandhi had to face the fact that he was assassinated and died with a broken heart, because that nation that he wanted to unite ended up being divided between India and Pakistan as a result of the conflict between the Hindus and the Moslems."
King is obviously thinking about his own life and dreams. He seems to know that he too will die of a broken heart. Yet King tells the congregation that he can make a testimony not because he is a saint but because he is a sinner like all of God's children. And yet, he writes: "But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, 'I take you in and I bless you, because you tried. It is well that it was within thine heart.'"
It is, moreover, well with us who live after King as he remains a great witness to the power of nonviolence. We still have much to learn from this extraordinary man.
Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University Divinity School. His most recent books are Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life and War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity.