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Martin Luther King Jr. – The Life of a Fighter

  • 16 Jan 2023

On the Third Monday of January, each year, the United States celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Let's look into the life of a non-violent civil rights activist and a champion against racial segregation who is a celebrated national icon in USA.

Childhood, Youth, and Education

Martin Luther King was born on 15th January 1929, to Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. His father, Michael King Sr. was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and took the name of Martin Luther King Sr after the Protestant leader and reformer Martin Luther.

Martin's childhood was secure and loving. He grew up in an environment of discipline under his father and knew the warmth of his mother. Regardless of the efforts to protect their children from racism, the young boy experienced discrimination. Martin received his initial education in Atlanta, the place where he was born. He attended Booker T. Washington School where his intelligence was noticed and applauded. It was the only high school for African American Students.

In his young days, Martin Luther King Jr. also suffered from depression following the death of his grandmother. Despite the family's involvement in Church, young Martin was uneasy with the religious worship and often questioned the exhibition of religion as performed by congregants at the church.

Martin had a noticeable public speaking ability. His oratory skills were phenomenal, and this is evident from the speeches he delivered in his later life that captivated the masses. In his first public speech in 1944, he stated, "Black America still wears chains". King went to Morehouse College to receive a degree in Sociology. This was an all-male historically black college. In 1951, he became the president of the Student Body. At 19, he graduated from Morehouse with a degree in Sociology.

He married Coretta Scott whom he met in 1953 and had four kids. In 1954, he became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama. Here, he expanded the Civil Rights Movement along with his father.

Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955 and the Jim Crow Laws

In 1955, an incident occurred that triggered the Civil Rights Movement in America, when Rosa Parks, a Black Woman, declined to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. It is important to first understand the context that formed the background of this incident and how it became a turning point for King.

In Alabama, racial segregation existed between Whites and African Americans. Racial segregation was a systematic way to exclude African American from the facilities and services based on race. There existed clear signs for "coloured" that were indicative of racial discrimination. Such discrimination was upheld and reinforced by the law. One such example was the Jim Crow Laws.

The Jim Crow Laws were the local laws that supported racial discrimination. Jim Crow Laws are seen as being instrumental in the institutionalisation of second-class citizenship for the majority of African-Americans in the USA. In the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson on May 18, 1896, these laws were upheld by the Supreme Court. In the ruling, the court laid out the "Separate but Equal" doctrine in regard to facilities for African Americans. On the ground level this law kept African Americans away from basic facilities. In fact, it reinforced racial segregation more forcefully and allowed discrimination to persist.

So, when Rosa Parks declined her seat, she was arrested as it was in violation of the Jim Crow Laws. A similar incident that occurred nine months before was when a girl of 15 years, Claudette Colvin refused to let go of her bus seat to allow a white man to sit. These two incidents combined were pursued by E.D Nixon, a fellow member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Martin Luther King Jr. led a boycott of the Montgomery bus. This boycott continued for as long as 385 days. It gained the attention of the media and King emerged as a civil rights activist with a national reputation.

South Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Disobedience

King along with some well-known civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. The group had an aim to systematically organise the masses from churches that blacks attended and to inspire them to conduct non-violent protests to bring reforms.

King held faith in the media and harnessed its power to bring light to the cruelty of Jim Crow Laws and a demand for equal rights. The first issue SCLC raised was to gain the right to vote which was not available to African Americans. He led various nonviolent marches, raising the issue of labour rights, and segregation, and demanded civil rights. It is a point to make that King was inspired by Gandhi's nonviolent method of disobedience. He visited India at the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. He even said, "To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim".

Some of his nonviolent movements include the Albany Movement of 1961 and Birmingham Campaign of 1963. The Albany Movement of 1961 was a call for a non violent attack on the systematic segregation being followed in the city and gained media attention. Almost a year later, it was turning violent when King decided to put a stop to all the demonstrations for the sake of maintaining a non violence way of protest. In 1963's campaign at Birmingham, black people occupied public spaces, otherwise reserved for whites, and began to violate the segregation laws.

The March on Washington, 1963

On 28th August 1963, a historic March was organised, where King represented the SCLC. This March was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. President John F. Kennedy, although initially hesitant, joined the march. The objective of this march was to bring forward the deplorable conditions of the Black, especially those residing in the southern USA.

The demands of this march were straightforward and put simply. It demanded an end to segregation in public places, including schools; a minimum wage of USD2 for the workers; prohibition of racial discrimination. This movement was successful, and it is evident from the fact that almost 2 lakh people participated in the march at the Lincoln Memorial.

Luther King's Jr. one of the most famous speeches, "I Have A Dream" was delivered at this march. This speech is undoubtedly one of the most moving speeches delivered that moved the masses.

Selma Movement and the Voting Rights Act, 1965

In 1964, King joined the effort of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was working to get the registration of voters. A series of three Selma Marches of 1965 consolidated to provide voting rights to African American. Sema is a city in Alabama.

In 1965, a peaceful march to Montgomery, from Selma was suppressed by violent police actions. This gained publicity and Alabama's racial discrimination was being discussed nationwide. Before this, a local judge's injunction barred any gathering of 3 or more people that were affiliated with the civil rights leaders.

The first Selma march that took place on 7th March 1965, had to be halted since it turned violent. The police violence against the marchers led to a major turning point. This day is infamously known as Bloody Sunday. The second march that was planned for 9th March, saw a confrontation between police and the marchers. The violence of Bloody Sunday, and a further unfortunate murder of a civil rights activist, James Reeb, led to a huge outcry.

The then President of the USA, Johnson introduced the bill for Voting Rights on 15th March in a joint session of Congress. The peaceful marchers reached Montgomery on 24th March. As many as 25000 people entered the capital city of Alabama to support the demand for voting rights. On that day, King delivered a speech known as "How Long, Not Long" where he stated that his dream of equal rights for African Americans is not far away.

Almost five months after this, in August President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill, making King's aspiration come true. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the racial discrimination and provided voting rights to African American men, introducing a 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the USA.


Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a sniper bullet, shot by James Earl Ray. Regardless, he left a timeless impression. Martin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, making him the youngest to receive it. He was also awarded with a Grammy in 1971 for his Album "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam". But the most important legacy he left behind was the influence on the movements for African-Americans, not restricted to America but throughout the globe. He influenced the Civil Rights Movement in South Africa and emerged as a national icon in the USA. His attempt to change the reality of African Americans is noteworthy, to say the least.

 Annie Pruthi 

Annie Pruthi is currently pursuing her masters in Political Science from JMI, New Delhi and is a first division Arts graduate from University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and an award-winning best-selling author. Her book "Will You Stay?" won the title of "Most Promising Book, 2020 (Fiction)" in the Coimbatore Literary Awards.

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