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Celebrating the life of legend

TRAILBLAZER: The late Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts are celebrated every year in America

DR MARTIN LUTHER KING was one of the principal leaders of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. He was born on January 15, 1929, the second of three children.

His father was a Baptist minister and served as pastor of a large Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist – which had been founded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, maternal grandfather. Martin was ordained as a Baptist minister at age 18. After attending Morehouse College and Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania he became a civil rights activist early in his career.

SEGREGATED

He had been a resident in Montgomery less than one year when Rosa Parks defied a law on segregated seating on municipal transportation. King was soon chosen as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organisation that directed the bus boycott. King’s serious demeanour and consistent appeal to Christian brotherhood and American idealism made a positive impression on white people outside the South.

Incidents of violence against black protesters, including the bombing of King’s home, focused media attention on the Montgomery bus boycott. In February 1956, an attorney for the MIA fi led a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against Montgomery’s segregated seating practices.

The federal court ruled in favour of the MIA, ordering the city’s buses to be desegregated, but the city government appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court. For 12 months, make-shift car pools substituted for public transportation. At first, the bus company dismissed the civil rights protest, but as the economic effects of the boycott were felt, the company sought a settlement. However, it was legal action that ended the bus segregation policy.

On June 5, 1956, a federal district court ruled that the bus segregation policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids the States from denying equal rights to any citizen. The boycott ended, and it thrust into national prominence the person who had played such an influential role in leading it – Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

His memoir of the bus boycott, ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ (1958) provided a thoughtful account of that experience and further extended King’s national influence. Dr King is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

He helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. In 1962 he led an unsuccessful SCLC struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia and helped organise nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963 he wrote an open letter from Birmingham Jail, arguing that it was his moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

He also helped to organise the 1963 march on Washington, where he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. In 1964, King became the first black American to be honoured as Time magazine’s Man of the Year and also won the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Accepting the award on behalf of the civil rights movement, he said: “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.”

ASSASSINATION

King’s efforts were not limited to securing civil rights; he also spoke out against poverty and the Vietnam War; throughout 1966 and 1967 King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism throughout the country to economic issues.

In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, DC, to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old.

King’s death was followed by riots in many US cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.

King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1970, a petition signed by more than six million people was submitted to Congress as part of a campaign to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national public holiday. This remains the largest petition in US history.

Former US president Ronald Reagan first made Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into a federally recognised holiday in 1983 signing a bill passed by Congress designating that the day would be established in 1986. However, it wasn’t recognised as a holiday in all 50 states until 2000. It is the first federal holiday to recognise a private citizen who had never held office. In fact, this was one of the primary arguments of those who opposed the idea.

MLK day is also celebrated in Hiroshima, Japan, one of the only cities outside the US to mark the event, where the mayor holds a dinner. This highlights a lesser-known part of King’s legacy, as an anti-nuclear activist.

OPPONENT

King was a fierce opponent of the nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying that further use of such bombs would transform the world into “an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine”.

In a 1967 letter, King wrote: “Japan knows the horror of war and has suffered as no other nation under the cloud of nuclear disaster.

“Certainly, Japan can stand strong for a world of peace.”

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