Martin Luther King was brought up in a Christian household and based many of his ideas about how people should treat each other on Christian teachings. His father was active in the civil rights movement and the young Martin was aware of the unfair treatment of black people felt from an early age. His religion also influenced his ideas about war and poverty; he protested against the Vietnam War and on behalf of poor people. He was also impressed by Mahatma Gandhi’s use of non violence in his campaign against British rule in India.
The southern United States where Martin Luther King was born commonly treated black people as being inferior to white people. As a result the condition of black people in those states was poor. Laws aimed at keeping black and white people apart meant that black people had poorer living conditions and schooling and had fewer rights than white people. Laws treated black people unfairly and prevented nearly all of them from having the vote, even in states where they formed the majority of the population. This meant that they had little political power and their interests were ignored. Because the laws had kept people apart, many white people believed they were superior to black people.
Although a civil rights campaign had been protesting against these injustices since before the First World War, only limited progress had been made. Martin Luther King’s involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference marked him out from an early age as a gifted campaigner. His intelligence, his speechmaking skills, his courage and his insistence on the use of non-violent means of protest such as marches, sit-ins and boycotts, helped to make civil rights the most important issue in American public life by the 1960s. New laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped to improve the situation of black people.
Martin Luther King’s achievements and abilities were admired and celebrated by people the world over. He received many awards for his courageous leadership and vision. His speeches and writings still have the power to inspire people today.
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) – a civil rights activist, Rosa grew up in the Southern United States and lived with her husband in Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery was a segregated city – black people and white people had to live separately.
Rosa travelled to work on the buses. Black people had to sit at the back of the bus in seats marked ‘For Colored”. On the 1 December 1955 a white man asked Rosa to give up her seat on the bus. Rosa refused and was arrested. She was fined $10. Rosa appealed to a higher court. In support of Rosa’s cause all the black people of Montgomery stopped using the buses. Martin Luther King became head of the Montgomery Improvement Society which helped lead the bus boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days at the end of which the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation was against the law.
Rosa received many threats as a result of her campaign but she remained strong. She was awarded the Congregational Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Dangers of Leadership
In 1958, while signing copies of his book “Stride Toward Freedom" in Harlem, he was attacked by Izola Curry, a mentally-ill black woman who believed he was working against her with the communists. She stabbed him with a letter opener. He was rushed to surgery and spent several weeks in the hospital. Curry was found incompetent to stand trial.
Along with constant death threats, King was surveyed by the FBI. His phones, and those of his associates, were tapped. The government was searching for connections with communism and attempts to subvert the government.
The probes did reveal evidence of King's extra-marital affairs. Ralph Abernathy, in his autobiography, insists that King and other women were aware of the Bible's teachings on adultery and any relationships were emotional rather than sexual. David Garrow, in his book “Bearing the Cross", says that women were King's primary weakness and this caused him tremendous guilt.
Just before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he received the following letter:
The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation.
In March of 1968, King travelled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support working striking for better wages and conditions. His departure from the city was delayed by a bomb threat at the airport. April 4, he was shot and killed while standing before the window of his hotel room. James Earl Ray, a convicted thief with no history of using weapons, confessed to the assassination but recanted his confession three days later. Police and the FBI were observing the hotel at the time of the killing. Conspiracy theories about the issue abound. King's colleague James Bevel stated: “There is no way a ten cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million dollar black man."