Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Biography and Speech Excerpts
Written by LiRon Anderson-Bell on January 16, 2017
Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his first name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family’s long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931, followed by his father; and from 1960 until his death in 1968, King himself acted as co-pastor.
King attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 1948 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he then began doctoral studies in Systemic Theology at Boston University, receiving his degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.
In 1954, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights, King was also a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the leading organization of its kind in the nation at that time.
In December 1955, King led the first great Black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted 382 days, ending on December 21, 1956 with the Supreme Court of the United States declaring unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a leader of the first rank.
History often refers to King as a devoted proponent of nonviolent resistance and the teachings of Gandhi; however, it was not until the late 1950s that he began to embrace these techniques. He had until then been very much in favor of self-defense and even kept guns in his home for protection against possible attackers. It was longtime African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, King’s main advisor and mentor by that time, who introduced him to Gandhi, the Christian pacifist tradition, and nonviolent resistance. King later traveled to India to further study the impact of Gandhi’s techniques and became convinced that nonviolent resistance would be the civil rights movement’s best defense.
In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning movement.
In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action. During this same span of time, he wrote five acclaimed books as well as numerous scholarly articles.
In April 1963, the SCLC began a campaign against racial segregation and economic injustice in Birmingham, Alabama that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what King called “a coalition of conscience.” He was jailed early in the campaign, and after hearing about criticism of its activities by fellow members of the clergy, he penned the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, a manifesto that defends the use of nonviolent resistance to counter racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.
King went on to plan historic Black voter registration drives in Alabama; he directed the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, at which he delivered his seminal “l Have a Dream” speech, he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic injustice. King traveled the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would march on Washington, DC to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol until Congress created an “economic bill of rights” for poor Americans. The campaign demanded economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Criminal James Earl Ray was charged with the crime and sentenced to jail, where he died three decades later. It has long been alleged that Ray was a scapegoat in a broader conspiracy to assassinate King.
Excerpts from Speeches, Addresses and Sermons by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification’ — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
I Have A Dream – Aug. 28, 1963
“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.”
Public speech – Aug. 16, 1967
“Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Nobel Prize acceptance speech – Dec. 10, 1964
“Even in the inevitable moments when all seems hopeless, men know that without hope they cannot really live, and in agonizing desperation they cry for the bread of hope.”
“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”
“There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
From A Testament of Hope
“I feel that non-violence is really the only way that we can follow because violence is just so self-defeating. A riot ends up creating many more problems for the Negro community than it solved. We can through violence burn down a building, but you can’t establish justice. You can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder through violence. You can murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. And what we’re trying to get rid of is hate, injustice, and all of these other things that continue the long night of man’s inhumanity to man.”
“I must confess that, ahh … that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years and, I would say, over the last few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments, and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead. And some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go.”
NBC News interview with Sander Vancouver – May 8, 1967
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
From A Knock at Midnight
“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.”
From Stride Toward Freedom
“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”
Address at the Episcopal National Cathedral, Washington D.C., – Mar. 31, 1968
“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous, but Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.”
Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Nov. 4, 1956
What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?
Six months before he was assassinated, King spoke to a group of students at Barrett Junior High School in Philadelphia on October 26, 1967.
“I want to ask you a question, and that is: What is your life’s blueprint?
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be, be, the best little shrub on the side of the hill.
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”