By Yvonne Liu
Each year on the third Monday of January, schools, federal offices, post
offices, and banks across America close as we celebrate the birth, the
life, and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a time to reflect
upon the history and struggles that Dr. King fought for the freedom,
equality, and dignity of all races and peoples-together, as one nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia,
to a minister's family. His father was the minister of the Ebenezer
Baptist Church, as was his father before him. Known as "M.L." to the
rest of his family, he was raised in an environment by parents who taught
their children first and foremost to treat all people with respect. His
father worked hard to break down the barriers between the races and
believed that African-Americans would better their cause by voting in
While life at home taught that there was no difference between blacks and
whites, M.L. soon realized that not everyone followed his parents principles.
Instead, blacks were separated from the whites from using water fountains to
public restrooms. When he became of school age, M.L. was not allowed to
attend the same school as his childhood best friend, who happened to be
white, even though they lived in the same neighborhood. They were never
allowed to play together again.
When he was ready for college, M.L. headed to Crozer Theological Seminary
in Pennsylvania, ready to follow his father's footsteps in becoming a minister.
While there, he was inspired by several well-known persons, among those
Mahatma Gandhi, who struggled to free the people of India from British rule
by peaceful revolution. Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" also
caught his attention. In 1954, M.L. received his PhD degree, hence addressed as
"Dr. King," and accepted the job of pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in
On December 1, 1955, a Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for not standing and giving
up her bus seat to a white bus rider, since it was an "established rule" in the
South that African-American riders had to sit at the back of the bus and/or
surrender their seat to a white bus rider, if needed. She wasn't the first
African-American to be arrested for this "crime," but she was well-known in the
Montgomery African-American community, having once been the secretary to the
president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
As a respected and prominent community leader, Dr. King felt a protest of some
kind was necessary. So, on the morning of December 5, the African-American
residents of Montgomery refused to use the buses and thus walked, arranged rides
with each other, or some even rode mules. But as the boycott continued, the white
community fought back with terrorism and harassment, even going so far as bombing
Dr. King's home. Luckily, his wife and their baby daughter escaped without injury.
When Dr. King arrived home, he found an angry mob waiting. Dr. King told the crowd
to go home and said, "We must learn to meet hate with love."
The boycott continued for over a year, ending only after the United States Supreme
Court declaration on November 13, 1956 that Alabama's state and local laws requiring
segregation on buses were illegal. On December 20, federal injunctions were served
on the city and bus company officials, forcing them to follow the Supreme Court's
ruling. The following morning, December 21, 1956, Dr. King and Rev. Glen Smiley, a
white minister, shared the front seat of a public bus. The boycott had lasted 381
days. The boycott was a success, but more importantly, Dr. King had shown that
peaceful mass action could bring about change.
From then on, Dr. King was embroiled in the civil rights movement. The following May
17, 1957, Dr. King led a mass march of 37,000 people to the front of the Lincoln Memorial
in Washington, DC. Partly in response to the march, on September 9, the U.S. Congress
created the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of
Justice, an official body with the authority to investigate voting irregularities.
After a visit to Gandhi's homeland of India in 1959, Dr. King found himself in Atlanta,
Georgia, where he shared the ministerial duties of the Ebenezer Baptist Church with his
father. The move also brought Dr. King closer to the center of the growing civil rights movement.
Much progress was made in 1963 and 1964. In January 1963 Dr. King and the Freedom Fighters
went to Birmingham to fight the segregation laws. An injunction was issued forbidding any
demonstrations, and Dr. King and the others were arrested. Upon his release, there were more
peaceful demonstrations, but the police retaliated with water hoses, tear gas, and dogs.
However, television news cameras captured the brutality that the southern African-Americans
endured, giving many around the world their first glimpse into the civil unrest that had been
going on in the South. The news coverage would help bring about changes, as many Americans were
disgusted and ashamed by the cruelty and hatred. 200,000 Americans young and old, African-American
and white, gathered in the front to the Lincoln Memorial at the 100th anniversary celebration of the
Emancipation Proclamation on August 28, 1963 to hear Dr. King deliver his famous "I have a dream" speech.
In 1964 Dr. King was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as someone who "had contributed the most to
the furtherance of peace among men." President Lyndon Johnson also signed the Civil Rights Act into
law, which guaranteed that "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or
national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to
discrimination." It was a victory for Dr. King's vision of a colorblind society.
The winter of 1965 marked the most violent confrontation Dr. King had experienced. A march comprised
of 600 people from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery to demand voting reforms was met
by a wall of state troopers six blocks after it started. When the troopers with clubs, whips, and tear
gas advanced on the marchers, it was described "as a battle zone." The marchers were driven back while
on the sidewalks whites cheered. Two ministers, one white and one African-American, were killed, and
over 70 were injured with 17 hospitalized. A court order overturned the injunction against the march,
and the marchers were allowed to proceed to Montgomery, where they were greeted by 25,000 supporters.
On August 6, 1965 a voting rights bill was passed, allowing African-Americans to vote.
In April 1968 Dr. King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike of African-American garbage men.
On April 3 Dr. King would give his last speech. The following day, April 4, 1968, as he was leaving
his motel room, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by an escaped convict named James Earl
Ray, who admitted to the assassination in March of 1969. He was buried in the South View Cemetery in
Atlanta. Later, his body was transferred to a location near the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and on his
tombstone reads, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."