Though initially begun for a specific purpose, the letter that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while incarcerated in Birmingham ultimately addressed universal questions of freedom and inequality. It is because of its ambitious reach that “Letter...
Arguably the most important figure in American Civil Rights - and one of the country’s most important public figures overall - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been understandably mythologized in the decades since his death. And yet while the details of his relatively short life do complicate that mythological portrait, they also paint a picture of a complicated but devoted man whose courage in a conflicted age has inspired such veneration.
Dr. King was born Michael King in Atlanta in 1929, into a long line of Baptist ministers. His father, the Reverend Michael King, and mother, Alberta Williams King, lived in an area of Atlanta mostly occupied by middle-class black families. The Kings were a fixture in Atlanta’s Baptist community, especially after Michael Sr. was named pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931.
It was both in the church and from his father that Dr. King first came to understand the power of ministry in the black community. Though an extremely involved presence in the young King’s life, Michael was also involved in various social causes that highlighted the economic inequality of blacks, illustrating to his son how the church could both bring comfort to and encourage action amongst its followers.
An intellectually curious man, Dr. King studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta from 1944 through 1948, intending to become a lawyer instead of preacher. His focus at Morehouse, however, convinced him that there was a fierce intellectual approach one could take towards Christianity and its application, and he eventually realized that he could make his mark on the world most effectively as a pastor. Before moving into the ministry, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. He had been somewhat of an unfocused student at Morehouse, but as he developed his own understanding of theology and religion, he developed into a superlative student, graduating at the top of his class at Crozer.
For the next four years, Dr. King worked towards his PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. Though his work there (including his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1955) was marked in its use of multiple and eclectic sources, it also showed a lax attitude towards plagiarism. It was a charge that would be leveled at King throughout his life, and afterwards. During his time in Boston, Dr. King also began to preach more regularly, finding a way to merge his intellectual understanding of Christianity with the more emotional approach that dominated the black church.
While in Boston, Dr. King met and married Coretta Scott, a music student originally from Alabama. After marrying in 1953, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where Dr. King was hired to minister to a church. He finished his dissertation from there, and he slowly grew into a community leader in Montgomery.
Because of his position in the community, in 1955 he was asked to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), formed by several black leaders (including his life-long ally Ralph Abernathy) to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Though initially hesitant, Dr. King quickly became a fiery and devoted leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a yearlong protest wherein black citizens (the majority of city passengers) refused to ride Montgomery buses.
It was during this first stage of his career as protest leader that Dr. King established the qualities of his basic approach: nonviolence, the mobilization of black churches, appeals for white allies, and the goal of changing federal law.
The Montgomery city response to the boycotts ranged from intimidation to violence, but Dr. King and his allies persevered until the U.S. Supreme Court repealed bus segregation laws in 1956. Dr. King was well aware that their success was due in large part to rampant police brutality, the reporting of which stood in stark contrast to images of nonviolent protestors. Inspired by their success, Dr. King worked with several colleagues to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), through which he would lead protests and battle against segregation for the rest of his life.
Though the SCLC was an organization with a devoted membership, Dr. King was its true star. His book, Stride Towards Freedom, only raised his stature, and he became a regular speaker at public events throughout the country - his earnings used to support the struggling SCLC. Throughout this period, though, Dr. King did not push for large-scale desegregation or any Congressional legislation, instead focusing on support for black voting rights. Dr. King’s caution – which he would continue to practice throughout his career – upset many of his supporters, who began to believe him too willing to compromise.
In 1958, while autographing copies of his book in New York, Dr. King was stabbed with a letter-opener by a mentally unstable man. Though he was successfully healed (doctors famously told him he would have died had he sneezed), this incident inspired in Dr. King a morbid sense of his own death, which would haunt him throughout his subsequent struggles.
Though he was criticized for not immediately striking at another segregated Southern city, Dr. King understood the importance of dramatizing his protests, and finding the right stages. So during this period, he traveled the world, learning about Gandhi’s use of nonviolence in India, and about the African struggle for independence.
In 1960, Dr. King and his family moved to Atlanta to better manage the SCLC. There, he became co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father still served. Around this time, other civil rights groups, most notably the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were making news throughout the South with their own form of protest: the sit-in. King had an uneasy alliance with SNCC, which pushed for more militant action than he delivered, but he felt compelled to join them in their efforts when he could. When he was arrested at a SNCC event in Atlanta in 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy exploited his concern for Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, issuing a statement that many believe was instrumental in his narrow victory over Richard Nixon that year.
Dr. King’s next major battleground was in Albany, GA, which he entered begrudgingly and at the behest of others. Despite Dr. King’s two arrests there, the Albany Movement was ultimately a failure, largely because the local sheriff refused to use violence, which would have energized the national consciousness. Unable to enact any positive change, Dr. King left Albany in 1962, leaving many to doubt his relevance to the ongoing struggle. What was confirmed in Albany was that most of the country was naturally inclined towards moderation, and would not support civil rights unless they saw outward, unequivocal instances of injustice through the media.
In 1963, however, Dr. King led a great victory in Birmingham, AL, after being invited by SCLC’s affiliates to protest terrible segregation. The Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, initially followed the precedent set by the Albany sheriff, using restraint even when arresting Dr. King for protesting without a permit. While incarcerated, King penned what would become his most famous written work, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
The letter itself had little immediate impact, but the Birmingham situation turned after Dr. King agreed to invite secondary school protestors to join the mission. When Connor used fire hoses and dogs against the students, and the images were broadcast on national television, Dr. King had found his dramatized scene. Ultimately, Birmingham segregation policies changed not through legal victories, but through the SCLC’s appeals to the business community, who desegregated their stores in order to avoid further conflict.
The Birmingham victory was followed shortly by another much-publicized incident - Alabama governor George Wallace's refusal to integrate the University of Alabama. Together, these events worked to encourage John F. Kennedy to introduce major Civil Rights legislation to Congress.
In 1963, Dr. King joined several other Civil Rights leaders in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall, celebrating with and listen to several performers and speakers. And yet the undoubted hero of the event was Dr. King, whose majestic and iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered almost extemporaneously.
Less than a month later, four young girls were killed in a bomb attack on a Birmingham church, which intensified pressure on King to find a new battleground. He chose St. Augustine, Florida, joining pre-existing sit-in protests. Though the SCLC did attain some minor legal victories in St. Augustine, Dr. King left less than a year later, overwhelmed by the continuing violence and convinced that he would not find a dramatic situation there to energize the national consciousness.
At the end of 1963, Dr. King was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” This new level of stardom had its downsides. On top of the ever-present fear of death, Dr. King was often away from his family, which made it easy for him to indulge in his well-documented infidelities. Further, he had made enemies in the federal government, from the Kennedy brothers (who worried that he pushed for change too quickly) to J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI autocrat who kept a rather extensive file on King, whom Hoover believed to be a Communist. Dr. King published several other books, including Why We Can’t Wait (which featured the definitive version of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”) and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, which addressed the concerns of his later career.
In 1964, the first Civil Rights act was passed, under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Also in this year, Dr. King led the “Selma to Montgomery March” to protest segregationist actions taken by George Wallace. Though he initially angered some supporters by postponing the march to await a court verdict, the march was eventually completed, pre-figuring the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. King was not involved in another great success after Birmingham, but he remained active, lending his support for various other causes and attempting to expand his mission into a larger campaign against poverty. Having developed his nascent socialist ideas into an awareness that the true evil – which hurt both blacks and poor whites alike – was income inequality, Dr. King expanded his reach into the North, leading a Chicago Campaign in 1965. His organization proved wildly ineffective there, unprepared for the less clear-cut evils of economic disparity and the political machinations of Chicago mayor Richard Daley.
Meanwhile, many were becoming disenchanted with Dr. King’s message of nonviolence, especially when given the option of black militant voices like those of Malcolm X. As the Civil Rights movements diverged, Dr. King lost much of the consensus he had worked throughout his career to build.
Another aspect of Dr. King’s late-period mission that alienated his followers was his pronounced opposition to the Vietnam War. It would be several years before anti-war sentiment became mainstream, and so Dr. King’s new priorities – on the war and poverty – were confusing for many who had previously venerated him. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in this new mission, announcing the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, designed to force federal legislation to counteract income disparity.
The Poor People’s Campaign suffered an early embarrassment in Memphis, where a sanitation workers’ strike was opposed by the local citizens, many of which were black. When a planned march turned violent, the press at large turned against King.
Nevertheless, Dr. King persisted, returning to Memphis in April of 1968 to continue his efforts. On April 4, he was standing on the balcony of his Memphis hotel when a white segregationist, James Earl Ray, shot and killed him.
Though the Poor Peoples Campaign and the SCLC soon enough lost their efficacy, the specter of Martin Luther King remained a powerful motivating force for the Civil Rights movement. His wife, Coretta Scott King, remained an important figure in the fight for American equality until her death in 2006.
Dr. King’s legacy has continued to resonate both in this country and throughout the world. A federal holiday was instituted in his memory in 1986. His teachings – on nonviolence, individual responsibility, the role of the church, and more – have been instrumental in freedom movements throughout the world, and remain one of the benchmarks by which this country understands the tumultuous period of Civil Rights. Though Dr. King was undoubtedly a man, who as often failed in his mission as succeeded, the extent of his legacy speaks to his persistence and unflagging belief that man must try to better his world no matter how difficult the path may seem.
Study Guides on Works by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Published in 1958, Stride Toward Freedom is the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott told by the man at the forefront of its occurrence and whose involvement increased not on its impact, but also its meaning for the Civil Rights Movement. Martin...