Sunday, January 15, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.

It has often been observed that the African-American civil rights movement was left leaderless and in disarray with the assassination of Martin King, and it is no wonder. King -- who was born on this day in 1929 in Atlanta -- was a total athlete, something the movement hasn't really had since: he was an intellectual who nevertheless had enough of the common touch to be able to move the crowd with his words, as well as a man of faith whose unfolding sense of mission was much larger than the time in which he lived.

His grandfather and father were Baptist pastors at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, so King grew up steeped in the gospel rhythms and cadences of the black church. An accomplished student, he entered Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania as one of 6 blacks among 100 students, where he not only enthusiastically studied the progressive theology of Walter Rauschenbusch (who advocated that churches had an obligation to undo social injustice) and graduated at the top of his class, but was for the first time exposed to the racial ambivalence of Northern, politically moderate whites. From there he went to Boston University where he received his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955 with a dissertation on the concept of God in the writings of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and where he met his future wife Coretta Scott.

The year before he received his Ph.D King accepted a position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where segregation was more pronounced than it was in the comparatively cosmopolitan Atlanta. Shortly after his arrival, Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws by refusing to yield her seat on a city bus to a white man. King quickly jumped into the fray, organizing an African-American boycott of city buses that lasted 382 days -- a nonviolent course of action King adapted from the example of Mahatma Gandhi and his struggles in South Africa and India. While Parks' case worked its way through court machinery, intransigent whites retaliated against King, arresting him on a trumped up speeding charge, indicting him along with other supporters for an illegal conspiracy to boycott and firebombing his parsonage. With the international media descending upon Montgomery to report on the passive defiance led by King, in November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional, and by mid-December blacks and whites were sitting side-by-side on city buses.

The end of Montgomery bus segregation was a landmark for both African-American civil rights and the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience in America, and it made King world-famous. As president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King was anointed the de facto leader of the civil rights movement. Using a strategy of sit-ins (a method of noviolent resistance used by unions and pacificists early in the 20th century) and peaceful marches, King called attention to the cause, revealed the beligerence of the white South for all the world to see, and succeeded in drawing the federal government in as a partisan on his side.

This approach provided him with some of his finest moments in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 as the SCLC attempted to integrate public facilities there. Both officially, under the direction of racist city comissioner Bull Connor, and unofficially, by the acts of racist hooligans, white Birmingham did everything it could to shut down the SCLC protests. In addition to the reported murders, arsons and bombings leveled against King's supporters, Connor played into King's strategy by permitting TV cameras to show the world as the Birmingham police assaulted peaceful African-American protesters with cattle prods, attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses.

As John F. Kennedy's administration reached the limits of its passive embarrassment about the tactics of the city of Birmingham, King himself was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement, where he was confronted with a published letter from local white clergyman praising the "restraint" of city officials and pleading with King to end the protests. While in captivity, King wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail in response, an elegant expression of the goals of nonviolent protest which many have compared with the Epistles of Paul in terms of their moral and emotional clarity. Ultimately, the SCLC protests led to a federally mediated agreement to desgregate lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains.

In August, King led a massive demonstration (250,000 people, 1/4 of whom were white) in the nation's capital, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- once also the site of Marian Anderson's defiant public concert -- and delivered a speech which perhaps the best known of all 20th century speeches. "I have a dream," King said, "that my 4 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"; with quotations from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, King painted a picture of a new promised land and roused America to dedicate itself to a new birth of freedom 100 years after Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation."

In 1964 he became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite receiving international acclaim, the final years of his life were marked by conflict. Although his voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama led Lyndon Johnson to risk the political capital necessary to get the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 passed, King broke with Johnson over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. King's increasingly vocal opposition to the war was just further evidence to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover of King's supposed amorality and communistic tendencies; King was avidly targeted by Hoover's surveillance. At the same time, more militant African-American groups began to criticize King's nonviolence and gradualist approach.

In April 1968, King went to Memphis to support a sanitation strike. On April 3, King obviously felt the breath of his enemies on his neck, perhaps with a recollection of an attempt made on his life in September 1958 when an insane black woman stabbed him in Harlem during a book-signing, as he told his audience at Mason Street Temple: "I've been to the mountain top . . . 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." The following evening King was shot in the head with a high-powered rifle as he left his motel room to go to dinner.

The assassination of Martin King touched off African-American pain and anger around the nation, with severe riots breaking out in 76 American cities. After an extensive manhunt, police captured petty crook James Earl Ray, who was eventually convicted of King's murder. The trial left many questions unanswered, and King's family and associates continually maintained that a conspiracy was likely. In 1999, the King family successfully sued cafe owner Loyd Jowers, who had claimed in an ABC television interview in 1993 that he had participated in a conspiracy among white Memphis businessmen that resulted in King's death.

"Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Blogger Dan said...

This, like your others, is a wonderful post. Your writing here drags at my heart. It is a chronology, but with real decency and feeling. Thank you.

10:03 PM  

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