The death of Martin Luther King, Jr., still doesn’t sate the hate of some people. The man may have wanted all races to get along and live together, they’ll say, but he was a hypocritical minister, a sexual-degenerate womanizer, and an American-hating Communist.
But I know this: In 1955 a black person could get killed for using a “whites-only” water fountain in America.
Now? That world is almost unbelievably ancient history.
Despite any flaws in his character, nobody was more responsible for washing away America’s racial ignorance and leading the country through a painful but necessary bout of growing up than Martin Luther King, Jr.
Atlanta: Birthplace of MLK’s Dream
When MLK was a child in Atlanta, his number one dream was playing shortstop, not becoming a preacher like his dad — Daddy King, they called him.
At five years old, Martin often played baseball with neighborhood friends Clark and Wallace, the sons of a nearby grocer. But when his friends entered segregated school, his playmates’ parents told Martin that their boys were getting too old to mess around with colored people.
At that time, dark-skinned Americans had to enter grocery stores through back entrances. They had to try on shoes in the rear of shoe stores. They had to give up their bus seats to people with light skin. They had to step off the sidewalk when light-skinned people passed. They had to use different water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, and schools.
At that time, it was the norm to be a racist in America.
And yet, Martin, along with his younger brother and older sister, also experienced the conventional side of American childhood…
Their mom, a schoolteacher, made them take piano lessons, which Martin hated. Martin had a paper route. And like most kids, he did the occasional really dumb thing…like jumping out of the 2nd floor window of his house when he was eight, and once knocking himself out sliding down the stairway banister.
Martin’s mother taught him to read before he went to school, and he was such a good student that he skipped grades. He was a good athlete, too, and played quarterback for the high school football team.
After graduating early at the age of 15, he got a B.A. degree in sociology from Morehouse College. But a 2.48 grade point average reflected his indifference. A junior year Bible class, however, renewed Martin’s religious faith. Following in his father’s spiritual footsteps as a minister, he decided to attend three years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
MLK’s Dissident Education at Crozer
Several special things happened at Crozer:
- Martin was elected president of a mostly white senior class.
- He became Valedictorian of his graduating class
- He immersed his mind in the study of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Gandhi’s strategy of passive resistance.
MLK also won a fellowship at Crozer that allowed him to enroll in graduate studies at Boston University. Not only did he earn his doctorate while in Boston; he also met — and married — a beautiful and smart lady studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. Her name was Coretta Scott.
MLK and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1954, MLK accepted a position as minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
As fate would have it, the next year a volunteer NAACP secretary, after working all day at the Montgomery Fair department store, boarded a bus and sat in the first row of empty seats in the black section. When the white section filled up, the bus driver asked the lady to move to the back of the bus so a white man could have her seat. The lady refused. Her name was Rosa Parks.
Rosa Parks was arrested. The NAACP and several organizations gathered to plan a boycott, and MLK was chosen to lead it.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted over a year. During that time, MLK was arrested and his house was bombed. One night, he received a threatening phone call at midnight: “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
As MLK tells it in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, he went into his kitchen and prayed, and then, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”
So, he kept standing up. In 1956, the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on all public transportation.
Standing Up for Civil Rights
In the following years, MLK was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was formed to provide leadership for the civil rights movement. He traveled the world, and gave over 2,500 speeches. He wrote five books. He planned voter registration drives in his home state of Alabama, and marched from Selma to Montgomery. He led a peaceful 250,000-person march on Washington, D.C., conferred with President John F. Kennedy, and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
He was bugged and smeared by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. And in late 1964, the FBI even sent King a tape recorded from bugs hidden in his hotel room that may have captured an illicit affair. Accompanying the tape: an anonymous note urging Martin to kill himself. The FBI also sent a recording to his wife.
In addition to the FBI’s attempts to end his life and his marriage, the man was stabbed and assaulted at least four times. He was arrested over twenty times. He was also named Time magazine’s 1963 Man of the Year. And, at 35, he became the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
On April 4, 1968, Martin was assassinated while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. He left behind a wife and four children.
The world remembers him as the most famous leader of the American civil rights movement. America remembers him as one of its greatest orators. His daughter, Yolanda, remembers him like this:
My father was a buddy-daddy. He really spent most of his time with us playing, having fun, doing things that children love to do, which is, of course, play. He didn’t believe in spanking kids. Of course, my mother said if he had spent more time with us, he probably would have changed his mind [laughs]. But when he was with us, he really just loved us. Loved on us.
And the time was short, but it was quality time. And my dad was really quite a funny man. He was a bit of a cut-up. He was a jokester. He loved to tease, he loved to laugh. He probably could have been quite an athlete as well. He taught me to swim when I was four and taught me how to ride a tricycle and then into a bicycle, and we played basketball and baseball and went to the local amusement park. He and I, the two of us, would ride the dangerous shake-you-up rides, he called them “faith machines.” We’d get on them and just have a ball, he was a big kid.
I realize, now, that those were the times – some of the few times – when he really had to let his hair down and relax. So, that playful side of him, which was very much a part of who he was, he shared with us. And I’m thankful for that, because the Martin Luther King, Jr. that I know – the Daddy that I know – was a very different person from Martin Luther King, Jr. that everybody reveres.
Maybe most of all, what he meant to his children makes Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my favorite 10 Dissidents Who Changed the World.
Go to the next article in this series:
Sibel Edmonds – Dissident FBI Whistleblower.
Go to the previous article in this series:
Daniel Ellsberg – Dissident Leaker of Pentagon Papers.
Go to the series index:
10 Dissidents Who Changed the World.
[tags]Martin Luther King, MLK, dissident, civil rights, racism, assassination, I have a dream[/tags]