Tributes to the transformative life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The birth date of civil rights hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being celebrated all across America on January 15, and The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta has been leading the charge in protecting and uplifting the life and legacy of the larger-than-life figure who led the Civil Rights Movement for just under 13 years.
Dr. King began his crusade for peace in late December, and worked tirelessly until his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. He would have been 91-years-old.
Confirmed racist, James Earl Ray was convicted of the shooting. However, on December 8, 1999, a jury in a civil lawsuit, brought by the King family, reached a unanimous verdict that Dr. King was assassinated as a result of a high-level conspiracy.
Dr. King, at 39, transcended the flesh, despite being gunned down on April 4, 1968, on the historic Lorraine Motel’s balcony in Memphis, Tennessee in advance of a strike to support sanitation workers. For decades, throughout today, many young and old, of various faith traditions and backgrounds, not just from the same Christian faith, continued his work and legacy for nonviolent change, noted civil rights leaders and peace advocates.
Dr. King tackled issues the same problems in the 1950s and 60s that are prevalent today: racism, poverty, and militarism, stated Pastor William Smart, Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California. “When we look at that today, we see we’re right back where we started, where we never got out of it,” said Smart.
An outline of some Dr. King’s most important achievements compiled by The King Center include:
• In 1955, he was recruited to serve as spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was a campaign by the African-American population of Montgomery, Alabama to force integration of the city’s bus lines. After 381 days of nearly universal participation by citizens of the Black community, many of whom had to walk miles to work each day as a result, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional.
• In 1957, Dr. King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization designed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. He would serve as head of the SCLC until his assassination in 1968, a period during which he would emerge as the most important social leader of the modern American civil rights movement.
• In 1963, he led a coalition of numerous civil rights groups in a nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was described as the “most segregated city in America.” The subsequent brutality of the city’s police, illustrated most vividly by television images of young Blacks being assaulted by dogs and water hoses, led to a national outrage resulting in a push for unprecedented civil rights legislation. It was during this campaign that Dr. King drafted the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the manifesto of Dr. King’s philosophy and tactics, which is today required-reading in universities worldwide.
• Later in 1963, Dr. King was one of the driving forces behind the March for Jobs and Freedom, more commonly known as the “March on Washington,” which drew over a quarter-million people to the national mall. It was at this march that Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which cemented his status as a social change leader and helped inspire the nation to act on civil rights. Dr. King was later named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
• In 1964, at 35-years-old, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in Oslo is thought by many to be among the most powerful remarks ever delivered at the event, climaxing at one point with the oft-quoted phrase “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
• Also, in 1964, partly due to the March on Washington, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, essentially eliminating legalized racial segregation in the United States. The legislation made it illegal to discriminate against Blacks or other minorities in hiring, public accommodations, education or transportation, areas which at the time were still very segregated in many places.
• The next year, 1965, Congress went on to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was an equally-important set of laws that eliminated the remaining barriers to voting for African-Americans, who in some locales had been almost completely disenfranchised. This legislation resulted directly from the Selma to Montgomery, AL March for Voting Rights lead by Dr. King.
• Between 1965 and 1968, Dr. King shifted his focus toward economic justice – which he highlighted by leading several campaigns in
Chicago, Illinois – and international peace – which he championed by speaking out strongly against the Vietnam War. His work in these years culminated in the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” which was a broad effort to assemble a multiracial coalition of impoverished Americans, who would advocate for economic change.
“The Poor People’s Campaign was developed so that they could address the nature of poverty through police work, through direct action, and through nonviolence, and he was bringing them to Washington to make a statement, because that was where the issues were,” Smart said.
Many of the vestiges, or visible signs of the same problems fought against by Dr. King are hunger, homelessness, and poor health conditions, which predominate the majority of the African Americans’ attempts to rise, said Smart.
“Here in Skid Row, we say homelessness is a racial justice issue. Forty percent of the homeless population of the nation is Black, while being only 12 or 13 percent of the population,” said Pastor Stephe “Cue” Jn-Marie, an activist and founder of “The Row,” which is “The Church Without Walls” on Skid Row. He said Blacks in Los Angeles are nine percent of the population, but 40 percent of the homeless population, he said. And in Skid Row, Blacks make up about 70 percent of the population, depending on who’s asked.
“Obviously, Dr. King was ahead of his time as it relates to the Poor People’s Campaign. We know that we spend more money on the military than we do on feeding the poor … We’ve got money to kill people, but we don’t have money to feed people,” he added.