Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
Civil Rights Leader
Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957)
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1964)
Anti-War Advocate (particularly of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1961-65)
Born Michael Luther King in Atlanta on January 15, 1929 — he received the name “Martin” only when he was about six years old. With his policy of nonviolent protest, he became the dominant force in the civil rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement, from 1957 to 1968.
Received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, Atlanta. Then, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, winning the Plafker Award as the outstanding student of the graduating class, and the J. Lewis Crozer Fellowship as well. King completed the course work for his doctorate in 1953, and was granted the degree two years later upon completion of dissertation. Married by then, King returned South, accepting the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here that he made his first mark on the civil rights movement, by mobilizing the black community during a 382-day boycott of the city’s bus lines.
A national hero and a civil rights figure of growing importance, King summoned together a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Elected its president, he soon sought to assist other communities in the organization of protest campaigns against discrimination, and in voter-registration activities as well.
After completing his first book and making a trip to India, King returned to the United States in 1960 to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Three years later, King’s nonviolent tactics were put to their most severe test in Birmingham, Alabama. King was arrested, but his voice was not silenced as he issued his classic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to refute his critics.
Later that year King was a principal speaker at the historic March on Washington (1963), where he delivered one of the most passionate addresses of his career. At the beginning of the next year Time magazine designated him as its Man of the Year for 1963. A few months later he was named recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
King himself antagonized many civil rights leaders by declaring the United States to be “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” because of its involvement in the Vietnam War. His clear aim was to fuse a new coalition of dissent based on equal support for the peace crusade and the civil rights movement.
From the vantage point of history, King’s timing could only be regarded as superb. In announcing his opposition to the war, and in characterizing it as a “tragic adventure” which was playing “havoc with the destiny of the entire world,” King again forced the white middle class to concede that no movement could dramatically affect the course of government in the United States unless it involved deliberate and restrained aggressiveness, persistent dissent, and even militant confrontation. These were precisely the ingredients of the civil rights struggle in the South in the early 1960s.
No one has communicated the idea of the American dream with greater moral and oratorical power and with greater political and religious imagination than Martin Luther King, Jr. His expression of black people’s struggle for freedom in the “I Have a Dream” address (March on Washington, August 28, 1963) captured the imagination of America and established him among the pantheon of America’s leaders. He became the symbol not only of the civil rights movement but of America itself, a symbol of a land of freedom where people of all races, creeds, and nationalities could live together as a “beloved community.”
On 1 March, 1965, while at Howard University, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the evils of racism, poverty, and violence. As he reached his conclusion, he deviated from his normal script. He began discussing the Vietnam War , and called for a negotiated peace settlement. Two days later, while speaking on the denial of protesting and voting rights, he again mentioned the War, referring to the hypocrisy of money being spent to fund a war in Vietnam while blacks were being killed in the United States. King was harshly criticized for his remarks.
On 12 August, 1965, King formally announced his opposition to the Vietnam War, at a mass rally at the Ninth Annual Convention of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Birmingham. Gradually, King became more and more vocal with his opposition of the war effort in Vietnam. King demanded an end to the bombing on Face the Nation on 29 May, 1966. He also addressed a growing concern on whether or not the peace movement and the civil rights movement should merge.
King was convinced to take this more active stance against the War, even if it resulted in conflict between him and President Johnson, and a loss of SCLC financial support. King began making more and more public speeches critical of the war effort. For example, King joined a panel of antiwar senators at the National Institute in Los Angeles. King focused a lot of this speech, “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” on what was lost with America’s involvement in Vietnam; among other things, a focus on civil rights and poverty was lost.
King’s opposition to the War increased, as did his his level of analysis. On 4 April, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, King addressed three thousand people. He delivered a speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” which served as his most comprehensive statement against the War. King’s position would affect the policies of SCLC. SCLC adopted a resolution that they would oppose all presidential electoral candidates who supported the Vietnam War, which included President Johnson.
King would continue to actively participate in the antiwar movement up until his assassination. Death came for King on the balcony of the black-owned Lorraine Motel just off Beale Street on the evening of April 4. King was struck in the neck by a rifle bullet which left him moribund. At 7:05 P.M. he was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital.