The man who taught America the virtues of non-violence
The US this week marked the birthday of one of its most celebrated figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born 90 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister and a housewife. He went on to become a minister himself. He earned a doctorate in theology and he eventually became the face of the US civil rights effort — the most transformative movement in America in 100 years. He was assassinated by a bigot when he was only 39 years old, but he managed to represent the conscience of America in little more than a decade of activism.
He is remembered as a compelling orator and a front-lines activist. For the US, he was the leader of a movement to bring equality to all Americans, regardless of appearance or ancestry, but he provided much for the global audience as well. He showed the world that all people should only be “judged… by the content of their character,” that there is a moral advantage granted to those engaged in dedicated non-violent protest, and that large social changes must be driven by the people and through an appeal to the morality and sympathy of a population.
When the US Civil War ended in 1865, around 4 million black slaves were freed. At first, almost all remained in the southern part of the country, farming as they had while enslaved. The country invoked what was called Reconstruction after the Civil War in an attempt to bring the South back into the Union and to ensure the rights of black Americans. However, Reconstruction did not last long and black Americans were soon facing discrimination and, in some cases, terroristic violence. Across the South, an invidious system called Jim Crow was in place to institutionalize discrimination.
Schools and public facilities were segregated under Jim Crow, as were private restaurants and theaters. Employers and the government openly and legally discriminated against black people. Black and white Americans were forbidden from marrying across the South. Black Americans did not expect equal treatment from the justice system. In short, black Americans were denied the civil rights that white Americans enjoyed.
While protesting with his body, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was enriching the US and the world with his words.
Ellen R. Wald
There were always Americans — both black and white — who opposed this two-class system, but the cry for change grew after the Second World War and the Korean War, when black soldiers returned from fighting and the whole world seemed to be in the midst of liberal upheaval. King was not the first civil rights leader in America, but he quickly became the recognized voice of the movement. In 1955, having just earned his Ph.D., he led the Montgomery bus boycott — a peaceful year-long protest that led to a court decision to force integrated seating on the city’s public buses. During the protest, King’s house was bombed, yet he continued to advocate for only peaceful responses.
He soon became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group of non-violent activists connected through the organization of their churches. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested and jailed, threatened and beaten. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, he led a movement to force the local police to make mass arrests to draw attention to the evils of segregation. In the summer of 1964, he led nightly marches in St. Augustine, Florida, where hundreds were arrested, including black activists from various organizations, a group of rabbis, the elderly mother of the governor of Massachusetts, and other northern whites. Later that year, in Selma, Alabama, he led a march at which the local police viciously attacked and beat the protesters. He led more public protests, often at great personal risk, in Tennessee, Alabama and even Chicago, Illinois.
While protesting with his body, he was enriching the US and the world with his words. After he was arrested in Birmingham, he wrote the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained the use of non-violent protest and resistance to oppose racism. He also wrote about the obligation to contest unjust laws, as well as the words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King would later protest against injustices beyond racism, supporting the anti-war movement, workers’ causes and Native Americans, among others.
At the end of the summer of 1963, he gave his most influential speech, remembered for the famous phrase “I have a dream.” He told the nation of his dream that America would be a place where all men are equal, where different people can peacefully sit together, and where even the most segregated state will become an “oasis of freedom and justice.” He said: “I have 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.”
He identified the worst faults in America, and then he helped the nation achieve the greatness of its founding principles by leading a revolt from below. He was not a politician, he was not wealthy and he was not previously famous. He held no power but that granted by his convictions, his words and his deeds. He was a wise man with a penchant for speaking clearly and arguing for the righteous cause. Above all, King taught us that the people must improve their own society through moral opposition to injustice.
• Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University.