Dr. Martin Luther King

If we wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and also draw inspiration from the “impossible” success of others — please study the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and the fight against segregation in the South. We have quoted liberally below and can’t recommend highly enough the best selling biography on his life, “Let the Trumpet Sound” by Stephen B. Oates.

It is an honest portrayal of the movement, the man, the struggles faced and the sacrifices made.  It is especially fascinating to see how their political fortunes changed, the impossible Civil Rights Act finally became law.  Read a speech to the nation from President Kennedy, that should also speak today to us as parents. Their battle to regain their dignity as a race has much to teach us as we struggle to regain our dignity as parents.

Born in 1929 in a “middle-class” section of black Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a self made man, strong willed, and an established Baptist Minister. His mother was quite, deliberate, and slow to anger. He learned about how it was in the South when at the age of five, his friendship with a young white boy was interrupted when they had to attend separate schools. His mother told him, “You must never feel that you are less then anybody else. You must always feel that you are somebody.”

In high school he and a teacher were returning home from a special trip on a bus, as the bus grew more crowded with whites the driver told them they must stand and move to the back. King initially refused, but then moved to the back, later he remembered it, “That night will never leave my mind. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”

He went to Moorehouse College, choosing Sociology as a major, during the summers he willing worked as a manual laborer so that he could relate to the people, to “learn their plight and to feel their feelings.” He began to feel that the system of capitalism exploited blacks and encouraged racism. He began to lessen his anger towards whites, and redirected it toward the system. Graduated in 1948, B.A. Sociology.

Started school at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, one of the best seminaries in the country. Through his course of study to a Doctorate in Divinity, he pursued a goal of learning how to eliminate social evil. From the writing of Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian who taught in the 1890s, he began to see the significance of an active Christian faith which must work for the kingdom “down here”, as well as “over yonder”.

He rejected the writing of Karl Marx, it conflicted with his faith that, “at the heart of reality is a Heart, a living Father who works through history for the salvation of his children.” Marx denied that spiritual foundation. King also could not accept the notion that the ends justified the means; however, he did appreciate Marx’s criticism of cut-throat capitalism.

Booker T. Washington had advised blacks earlier in the century to forgot bucking segregation, recently approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). He urged them to work on self improvement and to try to earn the respect of the whites who would later learn to treat them as brothers. This would preserve racial peace. Others also supported voluntary segregation, a unique Negro community.

Many black preachers urged their congregations to accept the status quo — that all would be well when they entered the promised land. King rebelled against this, “the Negro’s mind and soul were enslaved.” How were blacks to get rights in a country ruled by a white majority. He read Henry David Thoreau, and became excited by the idea that one honest man could set in motion a moral revolution!

There was a Southern Student at the seminary who was virulently anti-Black. He confronted King at his dorm room with a loaded pistol. King calmly spoke with the man and disarmed the situation. There was “outrage” on campus over the incident, but King refused to press charges against the man. Eventually the man apologized and he and King became friends. This was an important event in learning how to convert a foe into a friend.

Not naive, King began to have doubts about the ability of Christian love to produce real social change. Much of his reading of history had shown him how impotent love could appear to be. It had not ended slavery in the South, and didn’t stop the Second World War — he wondered if he could be a pacifist. Reviewing the writing of Nietzsch his faith was shaken by words that proclaimed that God was dead and that man was driven by the basest emotions, only the strong survive. Maybe “loving your neighbor” worked in private situations, but surely not between nations or classes of people.

He attended a seminar on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and how he had used truth & love as a powerful source for social change. Gandhi had gone through dramatic personal change in his life, early in his life and in a fit of rage, he had tried to drive his wife from their home. Gandhi showed him that it was possible to redirect anger and turn it into a positive force. Nonviolence meant non-cooperation with evil. Gandhi’s history gave King a blueprint to how strikes and protests could be conducted without hating your oppressor, but also treating them with love and avoiding bitterness — all with a faith in divine justice. The term Satyagraha captured this combination of love and force. This was not no resistance to evil, but affirmative NonViolent action in resistance to evil.

The example of Gandhi’s success in India motivated King, here was a proven example of the power of love to effect radical social change in an environment that was equally as bitter as the black was experiencing in the South. Through Christian love, “agape”, King saw that life was interrelated, that all men were brothers, that humanity was a single process.

Back of the Bus, Montgomery Alabama (1955)

The Problem

Buses provided the primary means of transportation for the city’s black population. Some of the all-white drivers insulted black by calling them “niggers”, “apes”, and “black cows”. Blacks could NOT sit down in the first four rows (WHITES ONLY sign). If all the front seats were taken, and more whites entered — the blacks had to offer their seats to the whites. If a white person sat down next to a black, the black had to stand. If the black section of the bus was full, but the white section was empty — the blacks still had to stand. City ordinance enforced the policy, and violators were jailed.

The Trigger (Dec 1955)

Mrs. Rosa Parks, a black tailor’s assistant, was on the bus riding home as the bus filled up. As more white’s boarded, Mrs. Parks was told to stand — she was tired and refused. The driver threatened to call the police. “Go ahead and call”, she replied. She was charged with violating the law and jailed. Phone calls went out to the black leadership and a plan was formed.

The Plan

Forty to Fifty ministers and other civic leaders met. They organized a boycott by blacks of the city buses, any form of violent retaliation was prohibited, as a few black toughs threatened to “beat the hell” out of a few white bus drivers. Leaflets were distributed.

What Happened

The Sunday Paper accused the blacks of causing the problem, of “planting” Mrs. Parks on the bus, and of engaging in the same tactics as “White Councils” did in boycotting black businesses. King was confused, was this a negative-solution, was the boycott unethical? After much thought King realized it was not really a “boycott”, but a refusal to participate in a system which trampled their rights. The financial damage caused to the bus company was not intended, not the goal. He thought of Thoreau, “he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with evil.” And blacks were through cooperating.

On the night before the boycott was to begin, King went to bed frightened and worried — what if the people were too frightened or apathetic to participate? They hoped for 60% participation, what if they got a lot less — they would be laughed at, wouldn’t the movement suffer a great setback? At dawn he was surprised to see almost 100% participation!

They had more meetings, King was called to lead, and spoke to the assembly:

We are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire or citizenship to the fullness of its meaning . . . We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected . .(he reviewed how blacks were treated by the system) . . But here comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long what we are tired — tired of being segregated and humiliated; tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression.

We have no alternative but to protest . . . we come here tonight to be saved, to be saved from patience that makes us patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom & justice . . (he spoke of the threats of division and apathy to the movement) . I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire, but which we justly deserve.

If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong . . .If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer who never cam down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie.

In our protest there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from their home by a hooded Negro mob and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order . . . our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. . . .

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that use you. If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. . . (when the history books are written) . . . There lived a race of people, of black people, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.


They had meetings with the mayor and lawyers, some unacceptable offers were made. They were interested in preserving only ONE thing, the racial status quo. King learned it’s hard to persuade the privileged to surrender their privileges on their own. You had to make them do it. You must continue to resist until they do it. Some whites were sympathetic and supported the movement both publicly and secretly. They continued to have mass meetings where they were encouraged to persevere.

In the negotiations which went on the Mayor tried to separate the movement. Tried to label King as “wanting to much”, blaming him for the failure to negotiate a settlement. The Mayor tried to appeal to the pride of different leaders within the movement.

By January King was getting both threatening phone calls and hate mail. His wife and small children were threatened, but still he continued. While at a meeting on January 30th he got the news that his home had been bombed! For a while friends with weapons guarded his home at night, it troubled him, and after a while he told them to leave. He would face any violence with only his faith in God and the power of Love.

Trial & Publicity & Resolution

He was arrested and tried over the boycott in March. The NAACP had good legal representation there, he was still convicted and they started an appeal — the case made National headlines, the boycott was now front page news. They began to get a lot of newspapers and television coverage. The case slowly moved forward to the U.S. Supreme Court — in November of 1956, the Court found the segregational laws for buses unconstitutional. In December of 1956 (one year after the trigger), whites & blacks could sit together on a bus.

    Civil Rights Act Status (1961)

After the success in Montgomery, the political influence of the movement increased.  But they were told that it was still “not time” for a strong Civil Rights Act to be passed in Congress. There was a strain between King and the new President, John F. Kennedy.  Because King, “came on in a moral tone that was not Kennedy’s style and made him uncomfortable.”  The President said he was not going to push for a new Civil Rights bill as King wanted, mainly because it would alienate powerful southerners on Capitol Hill and imperil other necessary social legislation.

    Albany, Georgia – Failure (1961-1962)

The Problem

In Albany, Georgia there were some of the strictest segregation laws being enforced.  Several groups were involved and some people asked King to visit the city and speak.  Others did not want him to come, they wanted to keep it a local movement under local control.

The Plan & What Happened

The people would voluntarily violate the laws of segregation, hundreds were jailed.  King joined them and they appeared to have a victory in December of 1961.  King refused bail and remained in jail.  It appeared the City had agreed to change, promises were made to listen — King left jail, but nothing had really changed….

In the Spring of 1962 they tried again in the City.  King vowed to bring a change through their nonviolent campaign.    The movement had a lot of people and fervor — but went nowhere.  Local police Chief Pritchett would put them in jail with politeness and decorum.  He would fight NonViolent Action with NonViolent law enforcement.  When the demonstrators would kneel before the police and pray — the Chief would pray with them.   It was difficult to get publicity.

On July 20th, 1962, a Federal Judge delivered an injunction against further protests in the City. King and the leadership were undecided.  To continue in violation of the Court Order (and up to then the Federal Courts had been friendly to civil rights), or to continue.   They decided to stop and work to get it overturned.


The delay by leadership caused more dissension and violence broke out.  Eventually the injunction was lifted, but it was too late.  King would later admit that delaying the action had been a mistake and broken the back of the entire effort.

Birmingham, Alabama – Success (Feb 1963)

The Problem

This was a city full of hatred and deep segregation.  The police chief, “Bull” Connor, was not afraid to be rough on black demonstrators.

The Plan & What Happened

Peaceful marches were held. King and many others were arrested and thrown in jail.  It was from here that King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to other clergymen who refused to take up the cause of Civil Rights.  It was widely distributed and became a classic.

Later he was released, but it appeared the movement was crumbling.  Demonstrations had all but stopped.  Some people recommended a novel idea — let’s get high school students involved.  It was a tough decision for sending children into the streets could draw a lot of criticism — but they went ahead.

The next day more than 1000 youngster, some only 6 years old, started walking the streets. The police arrested 900 that day and had to use School Buses to bring them to jail.  One police captain was deeply troubled by the site, “ten or fifteen years from now, we will look back on all this and we will say, ‘How stupid can you be?'”

A larger effort was made the next day, and this time with reporters and cameramen present the police used water cannon and released German Shepherd dogs on the children. Three were bitten severely.  The next day papers across the nation carried front page photographs of what had happened — the country was amazed!

A few days later another demonstration happened.  The walkers approached the police line and Connor ordered his men to “turn on the hoses.”  They did nothing, and the people walked right through their midst. “You would have to say the hand of God moved in that demonstration.  For the people went through the line without being kicked or beaten.”  King even said, “I saw there, for the first time, the pride and power of nonviolence.”


Local businesses pressed government for change and segregation of lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountain was stopped.

    Civil Rights Act Status (June 1963)

Thanks to the tremendous public support from the events in Birmingham.  President Kennedy decided the time had come to make desegregation of public accommodations a matter of law. On June 11th the President gave a nationally televised speech about civil rights.:

“We are confronted primarily with moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as dear as the American Constitution.  The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities…  Who among us would be willing to have the color of his skin changed and stand in their place?  Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?  I shall ask Congress the Congress … to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”

This Bill was introduced into Congress on June 19, 1963.  The bill later passed the House, but was faced by a filibuster in the Senate.  More violence broke out against blacks, and that destroyed the filibuster, cloture was passed, and the bill was made into law.  The President signed the bill on July 2nd, 1964.

Next –>  Mahatma Gandhi