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April 23, 2024

The Life, Times and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Jack Criss

The Bolivar Bullet

Recognized as the greatest civil rights leader of all time and as a pioneering and brave hero to many, especially Black Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life still influences our world and culture almost 60 years after his tragic death.

Born as Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the middle child of Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The King and Williams families had roots in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.’s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893.

Williams took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks and they had one child that survived, Alberta. Martin Sr. came from a family of sharecroppers in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after an eight-year courtship. The newlyweds moved to A.D.’s home in Atlanta.

Martin Sr. stepped in as pastor of Ebenezer upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He also became a successful minister and adopted the name Martin Luther King Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. Michael Jr. would follow his father’s lead and adopt the name himself. King had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King..

King’s parents couldn’t shield him completely from the racism rampant during those times in the South. Martin Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God’s will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr.

King attended Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta. He skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades, and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15 in 1944. He was a popular student, it is said, but not a scholar by any means–at that time.

In his junior year, King took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry.

In 1948, King earned a sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He thrived and blossomed in all his studies, was valedictorian of his class in 1951, and also elected student body president in addition to earning a fellowship for graduate study.

During his last year in seminary, King came under the guidance of Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays who influenced King’s spiritual development. Mays was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and encouraged King to view Christianity as a potential force for social change. After being accepted at several colleges for his doctoral study, King enrolled at Boston University. During the work on his doctorate, King met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory school in Boston. They were married in June 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott and Bernice.

In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and earned his degree in 1955 at the young age of 25. It was here in Montgomery where King’s legacy would begin and be cemented.

On March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. The young lady, Claudette Colvin. was then arrested and taken to jail. Thus began the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. On the evening of December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home after work. She sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats in the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The driver noted there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. Parks was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code.  

On the night that Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with King and other local civil rights leaders to plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But, he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the Black community.

In his first speech as the group’s president, King declared, “We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown 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.” It was the first of many of his great, inspirational and historical oratory deliveries.

King’s skillful speech put new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama and into his becoming a leader. The bus boycott involved 382 days of walking to work, harassment, violence, and intimidation for Montgomery’s African American community. Both King’s and Nixon’s homes were attacked.

The Black community also took legal action against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court’s “separate is never equal” decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering huge financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.

After their victory, civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts and in January 1957 King, Ralph Abernathy and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to combine the moral authority and organizing power of Black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform.

King’s participation in the organization gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform. The organization felt the best place to start to give African-Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February 1958, the SCLC sponsored more than 20 mass meetings in key southern cities to register Black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and lectured all over the country on race-related issues.

In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, King visited Gandhi’s birthplace in India. The trip affected him in a profound way, increasing his commitment to America’s civil rights struggle and he remained somewhat of a devotee of Gandhi for the remainder of his life.

African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi’s teachings, became one of King’s associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of nonviolence. Rustin served as King’s mentor and advisor throughout his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

Meanwhile, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had formed in 1960 and, for a time, worked closely with the SCLC. By August of 1960, many sit-ins in the South had been successful in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.

By this time, King was gaining national exposure. He returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church but also continued his civil rights efforts.

On October 19, 1960, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service but were denied. When they refused to leave the counter area, King and 36 others were arrested.

Realizing the incident would damage his city’s reputation, Atlanta’s mayor negotiated a truce and charges were eventually dropped. But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. The news of this entered the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King. Kennedy expressed his concern for King’s harsh treatment for the traffic ticket and political pressure was quickly set in motion. King was soon released.

In the Spring of 1963, King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. With entire families in attendance, city police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Again, King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”

By the end of the Birmingham campaign, King and his supporters were making plans for a massive demonstration on the nation’s capital composed of multiple organizations, all asking for peaceful change. And on August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington took place, drawing more than 200,000 people of all races and religions in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  

His speech no doubt helped the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Reverend Charles Bartley, who was born and raised in Shaw and now lives in Louisiana, said of King, “He was our Moses, our superhero, our role model. All of us brought up in the church know the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of the wilderness and that’s how we saw Dr. King. He was and remains an inspiration to all of us interested in promoting peace, equality and freedom.”

On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both Black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge in Selma which, in an earlier attempt, led to the infamous confrontation shown around the world. While King was not at that first march, he was in this one and he and the procession confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and they then turned back.

Then, on March 21, approximately 2,000 people began a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol. On March 25, the number of marchers, which had grown to an estimated 25,000, gathered in front of the state capitol where King delivered a televised speech. Five months after the historic peaceful protest, President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

From late 1965 through 1967, King expanded his civil rights efforts into other larger American cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young Black power leaders. King’s patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many Black militants who considered his methods too weak, too late and ineffective.

To address this criticism at this point in his career, King began connecting a link between discrimination and poverty, and he began to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that America’s involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government’s conduct in the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-racial coalition to address the economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people. His speeches at the time also began to focus more on economic empowerment as evidenced in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?”

John Greer, Jr., a current businessman who was the Executive Director of the Mid-Delta Empowerment Zone Alliance (MDEZA) housed at Mississippi Valley State University from 2002 to 2018 and spent much time working in Bolivar County, said he grew up wanting to be Dr. King. “And his message of economic empowerment, of self-sufficiency, drove MDEZA’s mission and has influenced many African-Americans who have heard and read Dr. King’s words through the years. He advocated independence and economic opportunities and ownership for all people and that has been a driving influence in my own career–and many others. I think if he were alive today, he would think more work needs to be done and that we all still have to grow–in many areas.”

By 1968, the years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to wear on King. He had grown tired of marches, going to jail, being hounded by the federal government and living under the constant threat of death according to his closest confidantes. He was discouraged at the slow progress of civil rights in America and the increasing criticism from other African American leaders who, again, were taking a more militant approach, such as the newly-formed Black Panthers.

Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues. But, before that, in the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis sanitation workers drew King to one final crusade and address.

On April 3, he gave his final–and what proved to be an eerily prophetic speech–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he told a huge group of supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

The following day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by a sniper’s bullet. The shooter, a malcontent drifter and former white convict named James Earl Ray, was eventually apprehended after a two-month, international manhunt.

The assassination sparked riots and demonstrations in more than 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died while still in prison on April 23, 1998, almost 30 years to the day of the murder.

Willie Mae Williams-Johnson, the former mayor–and only female to hold that office–of Shaw (where she still lives) and a retired principal from the Bolivar County School System, said that Dr. King’s death was a “sacrifice. I certainly don’t compare him to Jesus but, the similarity is there in that Dr. King’s killing was like a sacrifice given to his cause of equality and peace for all people–he gave his life for that. And I think God was always with him. He was a hero to me as a young woman at the time and he remains a hero.”

Years after his murder, he is still the most widely- known African American leader of his era–perhaps of any era. His life and work have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C. It was at this memorial where Stevie Wonder sang his 1980 recording “Happy Birthday,” a song written for King, which many believe led to President Ronald Reagan signing into law a bill creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, a federal holiday honoring the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first celebrated in 1986, and in all 50 states in 2000. In 1984, Irish rock band U2 scored one of their biggest hits, “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” a tribute to Dr. King.

Not all of King’s speeches and appearances have been documented, so his trips to Mississippi–besides the ones noted above–are not all fully known. There are, however, records of his coming to Jackson in 1963 to attend Medgar Evers funeral, delivering a speech in Grenada on September 19, 1966 entitled “Negros In History” and, finally, choosing Marks as the launch site of his “Poor People’s Campaign” to highlight economic injustice in 1968, just two months before his assasination.

To this day, Martin Luther King, Jr’s “dream” lives on.

Mound Bayou resident Hermon Johnson, 92, actually sat and visited with King one evening in Mound Bayou in the late 50’s. “Dr. King had come in from Clarksdale, where I think he had given a talk, with Dr. Aaron Henry, a well-known Mississippi Civil Rights activist,” Johnson recalled. “Well, at the time, the sheriff of Bolivar County had announced that this ‘rabble rouser’ could not be seen or heard at any public place–he was not to be allowed to speak. He also said that anybody who did invite him to speak in public would be dealt with.  

Well, that night, Dr. King, Dr. Henry and a few other men came to a house owned by Dr. Burton, a prominent Black physician here in Mound Bayou, on the same street as the Isaiah T. Montgomery Home, just south of it,” said Johnson, a native of Mound Bayou. “It was a secluded, private meeting. About ten of us were there and we shared refreshments and conversation. We really didn’t discuss politics–we just talked about various issues although, of course, there was general talk about civil rights and our situation at the time.”

When asked what kind of man Dr. King was, and about his manner that evening, Johnson said he was just a regular fellow. “He seemed to like to laugh, tell a joke or two,” said Johnson, “and we all stayed together for about an hour and a half. Dr. Burton’s wife served our refreshments–it wasn’t a dinner–and he was at ease and natural. This, even though he knew his life was always in danger everywhere he went, even then.”

Reverend Sammie Rash actually hosted Dr. King at his church, United Baptist in Cleveland, where he still pastors today after 58 years. “It was either 1966 or 1967,” said Rev. Rash, “and we held a night time rally at my church. Dr. King spoke for about 25 minutes. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know him that well and couldn’t spend a great deal of time with him that evening, although we did pass a few words and shook hands. His talk was on what he called a ‘new Mississippi’ which included issues like voter registration, social injustice and economic equality.”

When asked if he received any pushback or threats for having Dr. King at this church, Rev. Rash said, “No, everything was calm and cooperation was provided. Owen Brooks and Amzie Moore,  civil rights leaders here at the time, were the ones who arranged with me to have Dr. King come to the church and it all took place with no incidents.

“He  was an outstanding speaker, as everyone knows,” continued Rev. Rash. “Well prepared, dynamic and powerful. And we probably had about 600 people packed inside and outside the church that night just to hear him talk. When it was over, he was eased out quickly. There was no lingering around for safety reasons. It was a very exciting and inspirational night and a blessing to have him come through Cleveland that night.”

Rosedale native and author of the book “Fatherless,” Larry McCoy, was a young man during the height of Dr. King’s influence and never knew him–but his mother, an activist, did.

“Rosedale formed a civil rights group in 1965 and my mother, Shirley Collins, was one of the founders,” said McCoy. “She gave speeches in town and also marched with Dr. King several times and I remember that, every time before she left, she would tell me and my siblings that if she was not back home in a certain number of days to go find the ‘designated person’ to find out what happened to her and receive instructions. The group she belonged to in Rosedale always left one member behind at home to get information on what was happening and taking place. Luckily, she always came back alive but she was jailed several times. My mother would always embarrass me as a kid because, when she’d give her speeches in town she’d always say ‘I’m trying to win freedom for my ‘Big Foot Boy’ because he wears a size 12,” laughed McCoy.

McCoy said that, while his mother was around and with Dr. King many times, she never really got to know him because he was so quiet. “My mother was talkative and outgoing,” he said, “but she would tell us that he was a reserved man.”

McCoy was 16 when Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968. “My family didn’t have a television,” he recalled, “but we heard our neighbors start screaming and crying and ran outside to see what was going on. They were wailing. When we were told that Dr. King was killed, we started crying, too. I remember being angry because I thought it was odd that he never fought back and never encouraged his followers to fight back. That was the Gandhi influence on him. I thought that force should meet force back then and never could understand how you couldn’t defend yourself against dogs, beatings and water hoses. There were just a lot of emotions running rampant that day. That terrible day.”

Willie Mae Williams-Johnson said she has visited the MLK Center in Atlanta twice and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis some fifteen times. “While I was teaching and acting as principal in the Bolivar School system during my years as an educator, I always made sure that my students knew about Dr. King and arranged several field trips, as well.”