The civil rights leader Martin Luther King was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929. In 1934, his father who was a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, journeyed to Germany and became passionate vis-à-vis Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation leader. Because of this, Mr. King changed his name and the name of his 5-year-old son.
Dr. King was such a very gifted student and he skipped grades 9 and 12. He enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944. This was the alma mater of both his maternal grandfather and his father. King was the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers but he did not want to stick to the family vocation. Morehouse president, Benjamin E. Mays, a noted theologian, convinced him to do otherwise. Dr. King was ordained before he graduated college. He attended graduate school at Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1955.
Dr. King once said, ““Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
This quote puts into words his resolve that segregation and violence had to be eliminated at once. He stressed that lives and the well-being of oppressed people were continuously at risk until those in power took the responsibility to change this issue.
Historians, political pundits and cultural critics, have seen how MLK was disliked and even feared by people in power. These include police officers, politicians, etc. while he was alive. Now they only embrace his work in a superficial way after his death.
Dr. King barely escaped an attempted assassination 10 years before his death. On September 20, 1958, he was in Harlem where he was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom.” This was in Blumstein’s department store. He was approached by a woman named Izola Ware Curry. She asked if he was Martin Luther King Jr. When he said yes, she said, “I’ve been looking for you for five years,” and she rammed a seven-inch letter opener into his chest. The tip of the blade came to rest right alongside his aorta. Dr. King underwent hours of very delicate emergency surgery. Surgeons later told him that if he sneezed, it might have perforated his aorta and killed him. Laying in his hospital bed where he recovered for weeks, he delivered a statement confirming his nonviolent values and said he felt no ill will toward his mentally ill attacker.
Dr. King was in Memphis during April 1968 to support a strike by the city’s black garbage workers. In a speech, on the evening before his assassination, he told an audience at the Mason Temple Church: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now … 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. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Dr. King was murdered by James Earl Ray using a single bullet fired from a Remington rifle. Dr. King was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray had a history of criminal misconduct including armed robbery. He was prejudiced against black people and intended to flee to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), following the killing of King.
Ray, a career criminal, pled guilty to King’s assassination but later recanted. King’s son Dexter met publicly with Ray in 1997 and argued for the case to be reopened. Because members of King’s family did not think James Earl Ray acted on his own. King’s widow, Coretta, believed the Mafia and local, state and federal government agencies were deeply involved in King’s murder. She praised the result of a 1999 civil trial in which a Memphis jury decided the assassination was the result of a conspiracy and that Ray was set up to take the blame.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has created a change in American culture. While he is currently viewed as an iconic civil rights activist and he has been regarded in this way since before his shooting, some may argue that his quotes and activism have been misrepresented in a way that softens his perspective on racism. His quotes are often shared or presented to solely imply that prejudice is wrong, but his quotes that address holding people with privilege responsible for changes are often ignored. He didn’t only think racism and race-based discrimination were inappropriate but he also wished for people in power to abolish oppression.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. The holiday, is celebrated on the third Monday in January, close to the civil rights leader’s birthday on January 15th.