On January 15, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it only seems appropriate that we consider the man after whom we name this American holiday.
As is the case with many figures in American history for whom we have commemorated a day, we have a familiarity with Martin Luther King, Jr. Generally, people hear the name and think of the Civil Rights Movement, of nonviolent protest, and, perhaps, of King’s assassination at the height of it all. We know these facts as well as we know that George Washington fought in the American Revolution and served as the first president of the United States, or that Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492 and found North America. So much more however, remains for us to tell about them!
I will divide this discussion into two parts: this first part explores his life before serious involvement in civil rights; the second part, his life while involved.
This year, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day falls on his actual birthday. The holiday does not occur each year on a fixed date, but rather “floats” to a Monday between February 15 and February 21. King’s journey started on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, GA, the older son of early civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Sr., and mother Alberta Williams King. At birth he bore the name Michael King, like his father, but a trip to Europe in 1934 inspired his father to rename them both after Martin Luther, a Protestant Reformer known for nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517.
Of his home life, King writes in his autobiography that is was “very congenial”, headed by “a marvelous mother and father” that surrounded him with love. Both of his parents had benefited from the blessing of education – his father the son of a sharecropper who determined to rise above his circumstances and his mother a daughter born into privilege. Despite their achievements, his mother and father inevitably faced the injustice of segregation, and the struggles of explaining it to their children and interacting with it themselves.
Rebellious against the system of sharecropping in his youth, King’s father played a part in early attempts at civil rights, heading the National Association for Advanced of the Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta and performing small acts of defiance. In addition, he pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and was known, King notes in his biography, for his “genuine Christian character.”
Through his childhood, King witnessed and experienced himself several proofs of the racial segregation in Atlanta. At six, a three-year friend of King’s, a white boy, suddenly stopped playing with him – a demand of the boy’s father. At another time, a shoe store employee, a white clerk, stated that she would only serve King and his father if they moved to seats in the rear. When King attended Booker T. Washington High School, named after a dominant leader of the African-American community in the post-Civil War era, he rode a segregated bus, and once on a bus back to Atlanta from a contest in a nearby city, the bus driver ordered and swore at King and the teacher accompanying him to give his seat to the newly-boarded white passengers.
Surrounded by atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan and the injustices against blacks in a court of law, King grew up hating segregation and, though his parents instructed him that they had a duty to love all, hating whites. King had his first taste of true racial equality on a trip to Connecticut with his parents before he entered college. Returning to segregation after experiencing that small slice of freedom – eating where he wanted, attending church where he wanted – pained him.
At fifteen years old, King entered college, skipping his freshman and senior years at Booker T. Washington to study sociology at Morehouse College in Georgia (1948), his father’s alma mater, divinity at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (1951), and theology at Boston University in Massachusetts (1955). These institutions exposed him to an abundance of inspirational teachings, including those from Henry David Thoreau, who in pre-Civil War days wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience”, and Mahatma Gandhi, who promoted a doctrine of nonviolence to achieve equal rights for the Indians against the British sovereignty.
While in Boston, King met his to-be wife Coretta Scott, a musically gifted woman then studying on a scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music. The two announced their marriage intentions on Valentine’s Day in 1953, and married just four months later on June 18. After Coretta graduated with her degree in voice and piano in 1954, the couple moved to Montgomery, AL, where King would pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
In a little over a year, the Kings would begin earnest participation in the Civil Rights Movement.
(For part 2 of this post, go here.)