Ayo Awofeso

Staff Editor

January 13, 2023

How much does the average person know about Martin Luther King Jr? Though most people have learned about the activist in school as well as his assassination and his famed ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, to properly celebrate MLK day, it is crucial to first understand the context of his life. 

Born into a deeply religious family, King’s childhood was steeped in the tradition of Black ministry. As young as six years old, he remembered not being allowed to play with a white friend; the child’s father forbade it because he didn’t want him to interact with a Black child, even as a playmate.

Growing up in the south, a young King was met with disadvantage at every turn. Though relatively well off, his family and other Black families did not have as many resources as their white counterparts did in segregated towns. They were often harassed in public and barred from going into ‘white only’ spaces. Some people could even get killed for doing so. Internalizing these experiences, King chose to follow his father’s footsteps in becoming a minister.

King was a gifted public speaker, elected student president as one of the most proficient students in a class of white peers. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 from Crozer Theological Seminary. Soon, he took to sharing his ideas with the world.

King’s first experience with protest was in Montgomery, Alabama, when he learned of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to move for a white passenger on a public bus. In response, he joined the Montgomery Improvement Association’s boycott against the public transport system as president. They argued that all people, regardless of color, should adhere to the first-come, first seated policy. For months, 40,000 African Americans passengers would opt to walk, take taxis, and carpool, withholding the system from the majority of its passengers. He was able to fuel a boycott so large that one year later, in 1956, Montgomery entirely removed the segregation of public buses. 

In King’s speeches, he preached nonviolence, an idea that resonated with him when studying in Crozer. Yet, this was something that he could only impress onto his followers. As early as the bus boycott, integrated buses became grounds for violence. “Snipers began firing into buses, and one shooter shattered both legs of a pregnant African American passenger.” In his future protests, peaceful activists would be beaten and sprayed with power hoses by the police, as well as have dogs set on them.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

Often, King is portrayed as a moderate in his time, when he couldn’t have been less so, especially in the eyes of his detractors. Despite the fact that it was those against the movement that caused damages, his peaceful protests were seen as violent riots in the eyes  of the white public. He spoke against capitalism and promoted a radical redistribution of wealth between the rich and the poor. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he warned of the real enemy of progress being, “…not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

Many people in the modern day also don’t contemplate that Martin Luther King was seen very negatively in his day. The government was at the forefront of this hate; tailing his family and career as early as 1955. On November 21st, 1964, King and his wife Coretta Scott King were sent a package including a letter from the F.B.I, accusing King of sexual misconduct. Dubbed ‘The Suicide Letter’ it was likely that this was created in order to discourage King from being such an influential public figure and to step down from his activism, something that he never once kneeled to.

Some voices today wrongly identify King’s patience as complacency, as an example of his long-suffering mindset and willingness to wait for the system. Such a perspective overlooks that this complacency was forced. King did not get to decide the rate of the movement because, even with his influence, he had no choice. He was stopped at every opportunity by racist reactionaries and even the government himself. 

One of the most intense of these sieges would occur in Selma during King’s march for the voting rights of African Americans. On March 7, 1965, nicknamed as ‘Bloody Sunday’, a truly brutal attack from local police ended in the hospitalization of dozens of activists; men, women, and children. But in response, King urged people to join the cause, and protest for a full 5 days, 2 days after the original attack. This persistent, fighting spirit showed anything but complacency. 

In King’s very first address to the public, he stated that they “have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” This quote hits a crucial point, the idea that they could not sit by and wait for the world to change for them. Action needed to be taken in order to attain equal rights, even in a peaceful manner. 

However, King’s campaign was brought to an abrupt end. King was in Memphis, Tennessee in order to bring awareness to the Memphis workers’ strike–of which most were poor African Americans. The night of April 4th, 1968, he was standing on the balcony of his room in the Lorraine Motel when he was shot by a gunman obscured in the distance. This man was later identified as James Earl Ray, a lone gunman who assassinated King out of a hatred for him and for his movement. He was sentenced to life in prison, though after this point he recanted his statement, and the debate continues to this day  about the true nature of this case and King’s death. 

Regardless of the cause of his death, the response was undeniable. Communities were torn by this murder, exploding in racial violence across the country and resulting in the injuries and deaths of dozens of Americans. A national day of mourning was observed on April 7th, and  King’s funeral procession in Atlanta was observed by over 100,000 mourners. His body was originally buried with his parents, but was eventually laid to rest in the church of King Center, on the grounds of the Martin Luther King Jr Historic site in 1970.

KIng’s legacy was carried on by his family and fellow activists, most notably by his wife, Coretta Scott King. She continued to lead the movement, speaking on the rights of African Americans and writing on the things she experienced along his side. A year after his death, she sponsored  the first observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day a year after his death. Since January, 1969, it has been made a national holiday, observed nationwide every year.

Over time, King’s image has been simplified in order to be more palatable and consumable to the public. This, in itself, is a crime against the man he was and the things he accomplished in his lifetime. The day should be seen as one of remembrance and tribute to King and his compatriots. It is truly meaningful that it exists as a federal holiday at all, as an official acknowledgement of a crucial figure and time in African American history.

This Martin Luther King Jr. day, it must be acknowledged that he was not only a symbol of the civil rights movement, but of the perseverance and fortitude of African Americans both in the past and in the current day. Instead of using his image as a platitude, his legacy should be seen for its entirety, as a guideline, and as an inspiration. In that way, action can be taken now in making the world a better place for each other, and those that come after.

Posted by Ayo Awofeso

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