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Essay: The Early Years of Martin Luther King Jr.: From Atlanta to Boston

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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Michael Luther King Jr was born January 15th, 1929 in Atlanta Georgia where he later changed his name to what we all know him by, Martin in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. He was raised in his grandfather’s church, Ebenezer Baptist where his ambition to be the voice of African Americans began (Mwita 201). Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. entered public school at age 5. King was later was baptized in May 1936 but the event was not as significant to him yet. King’s inspiration came from his father who was fearless when protesting against some of the manifestations of racial segregation in their hometown (Mwita 197). He attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15 in 1944 (Mwita 193).  He later earned a sociology degree from Morehouse College in 1948 and later entered the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He was under the guidance of Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, who influenced his spiritual development during his last year at Crozer. President Mays was known as an outspoken activist for racial equality and encouraged King to view Christianity as a potential power for social change. For his doctoral degree, King enrolled at Boston University. During the work on his doctorate, he met Coretta Scott at the New England Conservatory school in Boston. They were married in June of 1953 and had four children. A year later while working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and earned his degree in 1955 at the age of 25 years old.

As African Americans got off work after putting in long hours boarding the Cleveland Avenue bus heading home Rosa Parks took her seat within the first row of the colored section located in the middle of the bus. As the bus went on, the white section began to overflow; and the driver stated that several white men who did not have seats were making the attempt to take seats away from other African Americans including Rosa Parks. While others gave up their place, Parks remained in her seat. Once again, she was asked to give up her seat, and she still remained seated. Violating the Montgomery City Code, she was arrested; and found guilty during her trail (Foner 762). On the night of her arrest, E.D. Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr, along with a few other civil rights leaders all met to organize a citywide bus boycott. Due to his background, King was elected to lead the boycott, although he was new to the area; many felt that he would have strong support from the local African American people. In King’s first speech as president he said to his followers "We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we like the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice"(Noer 111). His determination created a new liveliness into the civil rights issues in Alabama. The bus boycott lasted for 382 days, African Americans workers refused to ride the bus and walked to their destination in spite of the harassment by police and occasional violence. During the days of the boycott, Both King's and E.D. Nixon's residences were targeted but the African-American community too took legal action against the city decree disputing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's "separate is never equal" decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Later being beaten in several lower court decisions and misery large financial losses, the city of Montgomery raised the law mandating segregated public transportation. He organized a protest in downtown Birmingham, Alabama in the spring of 1963 where city police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. King was imprisoned along with large numbers of his followers, but the occasion drew nationwide attention. Though, King was still criticized by the black and white ministry for taking risks and endangering the youth who attended the protest. While behind bars in Birmingham, King brought out his theory of non-violence as he stated, "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue"(Kazin 988).

As King and his supporter wrapped up the Birmingham campaign they were making plans for a massive protest on the nation's capital comprised of numerous organizations, all asking for peaceful change (Large 51). The historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, stressing his belief that someday all men no matter what skin could be brothers. “I have a dream that my four 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"(Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963). it’s While Civil Rights began to be more of a concern to the public many people in cities not undergoing racial tension started to question the nation's Jim Crow laws and the close century of being treated like the second-class treatment of African-American citizens. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities (Kazin 981). This also led to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

An attempt to organize a march to the state's capital came from James Bevel's request for a march from Selma to Montgomery with the attendance of King, Bevel, as well as the SCLC, with a few members from the SNCC. March 7, 1965, due to all the chaos from the mob and police against the demonstrators, the first attempt to march was put on standby. Behind the attempt sparked a different outlook toward the effort to gain public support for the civil rights movement, and from then on, this day was known as Bloody Sunday. There was a vivid showcasing of the amount of influence King's nonviolence strategy could possess during this day and age. Although he wasn't present; King met with officials within the Johnson Administration on March 5, requesting an injunction against any prosecution of the demonstrators. Not attending the march because of church duties, King wrote the following statement, “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” (Noer 111). There was an upset throughout world due to the footage of the police brutality on the protesters that was shown widely. On March 9, King made an attempt to organize another march. There was an order issued to block the march until after a hearing after the SCLC petitioned for an injunction in the federal court against the state of Alabama. However, on March 9, the marchers followed King to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, there was a moment so that they could say their prayers and dispersed so that the court order was not violated. Many different emotions were sparked by the local movement toward the end of the second march. On March 21, nearly 2,000 people started a march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery. Four days later the march was in full force. King’s "How Long, Not Long," was the speech at the end of the march on the steps of the state capital. The number of marchers had grown to an estimated 25,000, assembled in front of the state capital where he delivered a televised speech Within a speech (Foner 796). Dr. King made it an argument in his speech that it would not be long before African Americans had equal rights as well stating, "because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice" and "you shall reap what you sow”. Several months after the most significant peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Furthermore, throughout the years King’s civil rights efforts prolonged throughout the cities of Los Angeles, as well as Chicago. Although other black power leaders considered the way King approached the problems dealing with the white citizens to be extremely outdated; King dealt with the criticism and public challenges when he began to address issues dealing with the Vietnam War, along with the association of discrimination and poverty. He also thought the United States involvement was unnecessary and left a bad outlook on the poor; as well as attempting to create a bi-racial group to deal with the situations concerning the people of the lower-class economy. As time, continued Dr. King was now 39 in 1939 began to feel the wear of protests and conflict on his body. Growing tired of marches, going to jail, and always having to watch his back he became discouraged due to the slow development of civil rights in America. To top it off even other African American leaders were criticizing his judgments on situations. To address the majority of the issues within society, another march was being planned on Washington. King was assembled to another crusade due to a labor strike by Memphis sanitation workers in the spring of 1968. King stated, "I've seen the promise land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promise land” While giving his final speech on April 3, while at the Mason Temple in Memphis (King I’ve been to the mountaintop). Outside on the balcony of his room the following day, Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by a sniper's bullet (Foner 805). Apprehended two-months later, King’s shooter was a former convict known as James Earl Ray. The assassination of King caused a wide range of riots within the black communities across the country. After pleading guilty to the assassination of King in 1969; Ray lost his life in prison on April 23, 1998

In Conclusion, Martin Luther King Jr.'s life had a great influence on racial segregation in the United States. Even after his death, he is the most widely known African-American civil rights leader of his era. Given a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C., King was also given recognition by receiving a national holiday, as well as having streets, schools, and buildings named after him. As of today, Dr. King would be proud to see that his dream came true though it is only the beginning as racism and protest still arise from inequality.

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