From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge
"I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream...a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
These were the words of Martin Luther King Jr., a black Baptist minister, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The occasion was the largest civil rights rally in the history of the United States. More than 200,000 people filled the grassy area around the monument on that sizzling August day in 1963. Since that day the words "I have a dream" have become the symbol of Martin Luther King Jr., and his nonviolent efforts to secure justice for black Americans.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, to Alberta and Martin Luther King. His father was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. As a member of a black middle-income family, young Martin never felt the pinch of poverty. But his family could not protect him from the cruelties of racism. As Martin grew up, he kept his mother's words in mind: "You are as good as anyone."
King earned degrees from Morehouse College in Atlanta and Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He then went to Boston University, where he earned a doctorate. In Boston he met Coretta Scott. They married in 1953 and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where King had been appointed pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
Not long after King arrived in Montgomery, he was asked to lead a black boycott of the city buses. The black people of Montgomery had decided that they would not ride in segregated buses. They appealed to the courts for support of their efforts. The boycott, which lasted 381 days, ended in victory in 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation of buses to be in violation of the Constitution.
Soon after the boycott, King was asked to lead a new organization called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In 1959, he returned to Atlanta as co-pastor, with his father, of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He continued his work with the SCLC there.
The goal of SCLC was to win equality for black people. SCLC members pledged to avoid violence in striving for their aims. Despite jailings, threats, and violent acts against them, they never wavered from this policy. All of SCLC's many victories for equality were won through nonviolent techniques such as boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. SCLC campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, helped to bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It was King's leadership that inspired SCLC's nonviolent policy. King based his philosophy on the teachings of Jesus and those of the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. To those who opposed SCLC's efforts, King said: "We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.... We will not hate you, but we cannot...obey your unjust laws...we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process." These words summed up King's philosophy. His pursuit of justice won him the Nobel peace prize in 1964.
In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis, Tennessee, to help sanitation workers win better wages and working conditions. On April 4, the day before a mass march, he was shot and killed by an assassin. King's death, at the age of 39, was mourned not only by his wife and four children but by the whole world. He is buried in Atlanta. Since 1986 his birthday has been a national holiday in the United States, celebrated on the third Monday in January.
Jacqueline L. Harris
co-author, Marching to Freedom: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.