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Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)

 

Martin Luther King Jr.

1929-1968

He was born Michael King, but when he was five years old his father (also Michael) decided that father and son should be renamed “Martin Luther” — senior and junior. Thereafter the putative leader of the Afro-American people was known as “ML.” His intellectual precocity appeared as early as the prejudice he would have to fight all his life. For as he exuberantly awaited the end of the bus ride home following his triumph at his school’s public speaking contest, the conductor exploded, “You black sonofabitch.” King hadn’t responded instantly when the conductor told him to surrender his seat to a white rider.

When only fifteen King was admitted to Morehouse College , an all-black institution in Atlanta . He focussed on a legal career since law seemed the vehicle for addressing the shocking social inequities that were rooted in racist iniquity. Soon, however, Dr. Benjamin Mays, Morehouse’s president and King’s personal mentor, acquainted him with an expression of the Christian faith that was intellectually rigorous, socially sensitive, and ethically compelling. Determined now to be a preacher, he began theological studies at Crozer Seminary, Pennsylvania , one of the few blacks among the white student body.

Searching for the roots of injustice, King alighted on capitalism, only to see that its inherent exploitation found no correction in communism’s cruelty. Illumination flooded him the day he attended a lecture on Gandhi and understood two crucial matters: one, that only as injustice is overturned without a legacy of bitterness and festering recrimination has anything been accomplished; two, that just as non-violent protest had been possible in India thanks to British protection, paradoxically, amidst British colonialist oppression, the same non-violent protest could be effective in the USA on account of the Constitution. And just as Gandhi had insisted that the British shouldn’t be slain for exemplifying the hardheartedness endemic in humankind (Indians included,) black Americans would have to help white people save themselves from themselves. Gandhi had taken seriously Jesus’ forgiveness of enemies when British colonialists had not. King knew that we are never closer to God than we are to our worst enemy. Oppressor and oppressed were already linked in Christ.

Acclaimed Crozer’s outstanding student, King relished the scholarship Boston University ‘s School of Theology accorded him for doctoral studies. While in the north he met and married Coretta Scott, a Methodist. Declining tantalising academic positions in the north, he returned to the south to equip the people for whom he’d been anointed. As pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery , he realized that it wasn’t enough to inform people; they had to be moved. Lecture and sermon were qualitatively distinct; the latter bore fruit only as informed minds and warmed hearts issued in wills that acted in the face of institutions and images and ideologies and “isms” still entrenched despite the Emancipation of 1863. King developed the thoughtful, persuasive rhetoric for which he became famous as alliteration and illustration and startling turn-of-phrase were found in speech patterns and word associations as unforgettable as his cadences were irresistible.

Montgomery embodied the ante-bellum myth that black people were sub-human chattels. Since few of them could afford cars, they had to ride city buses to and from work. They were never allowed to sit in the first four rows of seats. When they paid their fare at the fare box beside the driver they then had to get off the bus, walk outside to the rear, and re-enter there. Frequently the driver drove off before they’d had to time to re-board.

It all came to a head on Friday, December 2, 1955 when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. The police arrested and charged her. King organized black leaders of the boycott. (He spoke of it as the “Montgomery Improvement Association.”) The following Monday not one black person boarded a bus. They rejoiced that they had finally exchanged “tired souls for tired feet.” The city lost vast revenues. The police began harassing black leaders. King’s home was destroyed. Fifty carloads of Ku Klux Klansmen prowled menacingly through black neighbourhoods, but now the people remained on the streets instead of huddling indoors. King called off the boycott only when the mayor announced he’d uphold the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregated schooling. Marches were organized to desegregate transit companies and stations in other southern towns.

Then a breakthrough appeared in the midst of overwhelming setback. Alabama had elected George Wallace governor on the strength of “Segregation Forever.” Bull Connor, Birmingham ‘s Commissioner of Public Safety, was its enforcer. His brutal, oafish vulgarity loomed on nation-wide TV as he turned fire hoses and Doberman Pinschers on defenceless children singing “We shall overcome.” Soon all of America was reading the imprisoned King’s landmark “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” A few days later Connor was again yelling at his men to train hoses on 3000 youngsters and knock them down. His men refused. King felt that Red Sea waters had parted. Apparently many others did too as the ensuing March on Washington gathered up 250,000, one-quarter of them white. From the seat of federal power King soared with his “I have a dream,” a speech as important in U.S. history as Lincoln ‘s Gettysburg Address.

Meanwhile King’s notorious sexual infidelities provided ready material for J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI in their attempts at discrediting his movement. Yet his credibility mounted as he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Public sympathy swelled as he spoke of black people denied voter registration inasmuch as they’d failed to cross a “t” in their application form. When marchers from Selma , braving setbacks and savagery, finally arrived in Montgomery, they stood at Confederate Square and sang

Deep in my heart, I do believe

That we have overcome today.

 

On April 4, 1968 , King was standing on a Memphis hotel balcony when a bullet severed his jugular vein and his spinal cord. Three days later President Johnson, who had decried America ‘s “crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,” declared a National Day of Mourning. Next day Coretta led 19,000 through the streets of Memphis . No one was molested.

King’s sin can’t be excused as “weakness.” Still, it recalls the sin of another master, King David of Bethlehem . Both men proved yet again Martin Luther’s aphorism, “God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick.” Above all M.L. King recalls a blind man who was granted sight, as all of us can be, only as he called out, “Son of David, have mercy on me” — and knew that the sin of Israel’s greatest defender and leader couldn’t stymie the sight-bestowing gift of Israel’s greater Son.