Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Martin Luther King
He sensed that history was, if only for a moment, on his people’s side.
He sensed that history was, if only for a moment, on his people’s side.
On the night before Good Friday, a quarter of a century ago, a group of African American men and women sat in the reception of the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, the only place that would take them in the fiercely segregated city. For nine days, they had marched peacefully through the streets of Birmingham, holding hands. For this, and nothing more, they had been spat on, sprayed with high-pressure hoses, attacked by police dogs and thrown into jail.
The atmosphere was strained. They debated loudly, shouting over one another. “This is not where we belong,” a middle-aged minister shouted. “We belong back with our families, in our churches.” The exception was a young man with gentle almond eyes called Martin, who slouched in an armchair in silent contemplation. While the debate circled endlessly, Martin quietly stood up and walked into his room, closing the door behind him. Moments later, no longer wearing his black suit, Martin walked back into the room and everyone became silent. He was wearing blue jeans and a sweat shirt. These were not clothes to go to Church in. These were clothes to march in; clothes to go to jail in.
Martin Luther wasn’t his real name. He was born Michael King Jr, the middle of three children, in Atlanta, Georgia, in the winter of 1929. His father, Michael Snr, was, like his father before him, a pastor at a Baptist Church. After a family holiday to Germany in 1934, King Snr changed his and Michael Jnr’s names to Martin Luther, after the man who centuries earlier had the audacity to question the tyrannical authority of the Catholic Church.
Martin’s best friends were two white boys who lived in a house opposite the Kings. Up to the age of six they played like brothers, until one day, without explanation, they stopped speaking to Martin and told him he was no longer allowed to play with them. Martin went home to his mother. “Why?” he asked. She took his hand and walked with him through the main streets of downtown Atlanta. For the first time, Martin read the signs; “No Blacks Allowed,” “Whites Only.” She saw his little face, confused. She knelt down and took him by the shoulders: “You are as good as anyone,” she said, and left it at that.
Martin heeded this lesson and grew up humble yet ambitious and brilliant, topping all of his classes through school and college, and then graduating with a degree in sociology at the age of 19. Driven by a desire to grapple with religion on an intellectual level, Martin decided to leave the south and travel to Boston to study for a Ph.D in theology.
In the domed libraries of Boston University, Martin meditated on the teachings of Jesus, on the scriptures which taught him the unalienable and universal power of love. Yet, every morning, Martin would read news from the South, stories of his black brothers and sisters persecuted by police, thrown into jail by racist judges, lynched by the Ku Klux Clan. He grew sceptical. How can we turn the other cheek, Martin asked himself, when the one who hits us is not an individual, but an entire system designed for inequality?
Martin found solace in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, whose words he clung to like a lifeboat. “Resist!” Gandhi implored Martin, but not with hatred, not with violence—bear your struggle as a mark of universal love. “The path of hate,” Martin realised, was “too great a burden to bear.”
Martin found love personally, too, in a headstrong and fiercely loyal young singer named Coretta Scott. Together, they moved back South to Montgomery, Alabama, where the 25-year-old Martin became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Like most towns in the South, life was hard for the African American families in Montgomery. Every Sunday, the community would gather to hear Martin preach. He was not a tall man, barely five-foot-seven, but he commanded every inch of the Church with his sonorous, trembling verses, and the congregation would sway, and answer his calls. “In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him.” “Yes, Lord!” from the crowd, “…and that the greatest of all virtues is love,” “Help him, Jesus! Amen!” The church doors would open, and the congregation would spill into the streets, uplifted by its faith that change, at last, was on the way.
On December 1, 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, and she was arrested. That night, a formidable simmering anger among the African American population was on the verge of exploding. Martin, sensing this powerful energy among his community, called for resistance, but not violence, rather, “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.’’
The next day, not one African American resident of Montgomery used the public bus system. Instead, they walked to work, to school, to Church, and as they walked they talked and sang, their voices trembling with hope. The Montgomery Bus Boycott continued, for the next 381 days. And eventually, the city gave in, passing an ordinance allowing any citizen of Montgomery, regardless of colour, to sit anywhere on a public bus.
The whole country suddenly fixed their attention on Montgomery and its brilliant young pastor. A group of committed men and women gravitated to Dr King, and together they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For the next eight years, the SCLC organised peaceful marches across the most rabidly racist towns in the south. Dr King was always there at the front, holding hands with arms linked across his body, singing, praying, eyes on the road in front of him.
On Good Friday 1963, he was there, marching down the main street of Birmingham, Alabama wearing his blue jeans. He was arrested and thrown into jail. That evening, in his cell, Martin began writing Letter From the Birmingham Jail. He wrote that the African American struggle was really humanity’s struggle, because “injustice anywhere,” he wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere,” Back in Montgomery, his wife Coretta and their newborn baby spent Easter without him. She received death threats by phone and mail daily, but never mentioned them to her husband. She suffered. But she was buoyed by the righteousness of their cause, ennobled by a sense of collective struggle.
In 1960, a young, handsome man from Boston was elected President of the USA. Martin liked him and John F Kennedy liked Martin. JFK was, according to Martin, a true leader, “Not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” He sensed that history was, if only for a moment, on his people’s side. He planned a march to Washington, calling Americans from every state, of all ages, sexes and races, to gather in the capital to show that they wanted civil rights for all citizens.
The night before the march, Martin told his closest friends that he was going to talk about his “dream.” “Come on Martin,” one of them said, half-jokingly. “We’ve all heard that one before. This is different. Say something new.”
The next day, on a warm afternoon towards the end of the month of August, Martin Luther King Jr stood before some 250,000 people, under the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial—and then he addressed the crowd.
For the first two thirds of the speech, Martin looked down repeatedly at his notes, pausing at length between his sentences, as if overwhelmed by the sea of people. But then, without warning, a woman from the crowd shouted, “Tell them about the dream Martin.” Martin looked up at the crowd, inhaled deeply, and bellowed, “I have a dream.” Something changed in the atmosphere. Martin swayed and preached in long echoing sentences, as he had seen his father do in Atlanta, as he had done in Montgomery, but now, the whole country had become his congregation. “I have a dream,” he repeated, offering a voice that gave honour to the anguish of his people, that leant eloquence to the indignity they suffered, that became the cry for human rights everywhere.
After the speech Martin was subdued. He said to Coretta, “I can’t make little mistakes anymore. Every mistake is a big mistake. History has seized me.” Less than one year later, that same handsome young President signed the Civil Rights Bill, and a few months later Dr King flew to Sweden to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of those who hated Martin Luther King Jr there were two kinds. In the first category were people like FBI boss J Edgar Hoover—who was consumed by a pathological fear of King’s radical message, his popularity, his relationship with the President and the colour of his skin. He sought to discredit Dr King publicly by accusing him of Communist ties, and destroyed him privately by sending letters to Coretta detailing Martin’s alleged extra-marital affairs. In the second category were people like Malcolm X, who accused Dr King of softness, of betraying his people. For Malcolm X, nonviolent resistance was “just another way to keep the Negroes defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts to ever take a people into captivity.”
This hatred bore heavily on Martin’s conscience, not so much personally, but because it symbolised that the animosity and suspicion that had developed through the centuries between black people and white people, that was deeply entrenched in the nation’s psyche, and was not going to be resolved overnight with a Civil Rights Bill.
In 1966, Martin, Coretta and their children moved from Alabama to the ghetto of North Lawndale in the destitute west-side of Chicago. For the next two years, Martin turned his attention to the issue of poverty, insisting that African Americans demand economic dignity and reparations from the Government. His friends recall that during this period, Martin rarely slept. One summer night in 1967, Martin gathered all of the roughest kids in the neighborhood into a community center, and preached to them for four hours straight, sweating profusely, but not relenting until each had sworn, personally, never to resort to violence in the struggle for freedom and dignity.
And yet, across the Pacific, America was dropping bombs in Vietnam. In the streets of LA, young African American men and women were rioting. And in Mississippi, a black man was shot dead for walking peacefully along the side of a highway as a sign of nonviolent resistance, inspired by the marches Martin had organised in the years previous. It was as if, after 12 years, Martin’s message was being drowned by the endless hum of a sick society infested with racism and violent hatred.
In public he repeated his mantra: “I know nonviolence will work.” But in private, he was growing weary. His friends noticed that he had stopped laughing. On a lonely night in 1968, on the campaign trail in Memphis, Tennessee, he turned to his loyal friends and sighed, “The weight of the world is on me.”
The next night, Dr King was due to give a sermon at Mason Temple Church in Memphis. His friends were worried about him and told him to rest, that someone else could fill in. When they arrived, they found the Church packed beyond capacity, electric with anticipation. They were all here to see Dr King, their leader. He could not bear to disappoint them. Exhausted, Martin arrived from the motel and took the podium, and his voice rose and faltered with a new type of emotion, as if he had reached the end of some impossible journey.
He preached, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The very next evening, a shot rang out at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and on the second-floor balcony, Dr Martin Luther King Jr collapsed dead. His killer was a white man called James Earl Ray who harboured deep racist hatred. As news spread across the country, those who had drawn on Dr King’s words for strength felt their hope turn to anger. Violent riots erupted in over 100 cities across America. The only man who could have appeased the masses of angry African American youth was murdered.
Left behind were entire communities—black, white, poor, those who society had turned its back on—who Dr King had spoken on behalf of, as if his voice carried the very substance of their suffering. They all mourned his death. There was a sense, though, that it wasn’t him they were crying for; the tears were shed for their own future, the future of their country.
Dr King was survived by four children and his wife Coretta. She courageously carried out her and Martin’s vision until the day she died, repeating to her children what Martin had told her when they were a young couple facing an uncertain future: “If a man has nothing worth dying for then he is not fit to live.”