His Dream? Equality for All. ; Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Champion of Civil Rights, but He Faced Challenges and Dangers

Article excerpt

What do you know about the man whose life is celebrated with a holiday next Monday? Martin Luther King Jr. greatly influenced the United States because he gave the civil rights movement a powerful voice. His use of nonviolent protest and dramatic oratory grabbed America's attention and convinced many people to strive for the end of segregation (keeping black and white people separate academically, socially, and so forth).

Born Jan. 15, 1929, he came from a long line of religiously motivated activists who also changed the societies in which they lived.

His father and grandfather both served as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a prominent African-American church in Atlanta, and held leadership positions in the city's chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), a civil rights organization.

The name he was given at birth - Michael - was changed when he was 5 years old. (The original Martin Luther was a 16th- century German priest and reformer whose protests sparked the historic Protestant Reformation.)

Before coming into his national pulpit, King went to school: four years at Morehouse College in Atlanta; three at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.; and five at Boston University's School of Theology. The 12 years of study helped form his beliefs and influence his views on civil disobedience and racial justice.

By the time he finished his Ph.D, in 1955, King had married Coretta Scott and accepted a job as minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

In December of that year, Rosa Parks famously defied Alabama's bus segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white man. That incident drew King into his first widely publicized civil rights campaign. He helped organize a bus boycott that lasted more than a year, until the US Supreme Court declared Alabama's bus rules unconstitutional.

In 1957, King and other black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate civil rights activities in the region. He became its president. King delivered his first national address that year; many more followed.

Fighting with nonviolence

In 1960, King moved back to Atlanta. Working alongside his father at Ebenezer Church, King saw social activism as an outgrowth of his ministry: Freedom and equality were part of God's plan. Avoiding violence to achieve this goal, he believed, demonstrated Christian love.

King also believed that nonviolence would win people's support, rather than alienate them. And he thought that large gatherings and grand rhetoric, broadcast across the country, would force people to confront the injustice - and respond to it.

King's leadership role brought many challenges and even dangers. Opponents bombed his home. He was arrested several times. In April 1963, King spent a week in a Birmingham, Ala., jail for disobeying a court order against protest marches. After his release, he continued to mobilize demonstrators. When Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor authorized the police to use dogs and hoses against protesters, the brutal images spread across the country. These galvanized support for the civil rights movement.

His years of protest culminated in a momentous March on Washington in August 1963. More than 200,000 people gathered in the nation's capital, where King delivered a passionate cry for the country to practice the equality promised in its founding documents. In bold rhetoric, he shared his vision of a harmonious community, where "all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants - will be able to join hands and to sing ... 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.' "

This became known as the "I Have a Dream" speech. It propelled him to the height of his activism and broke major ground for the cause. …