A Vision of Unity
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
20th c. Baptist minister and civil rights activist who used nonviolent activism to end legal segregation in the United States.
Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and humanitarian, Martin Luther King, Jr. came of age in the segregated South of the middle 20th-century. Born as Michael King on January 15, 1929, his parents changed his name to Martin Luther King, Jr. a few years later, in a tribute to the German priest and Reformer, Martin Luther. King used non-violent methods of protest to unite humanitarian groups in a movement that ended legal segregation in the United States. His consistent appeals to biblical values and to the principles of the Declaration of Independence challenged the people of the United States to live up to their core identity as a nation that recognizes the equal and God-given worth of all people and is thus united in human solidarity.
Notre Dame University president and United States Civil Rights Commission member, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. (second from left), and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (third from left), linking arms while singing "We Shall Overcome" at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights, June 21, 1964.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the University of Notre Dame in honor of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.
In December 1955, King came to national prominence when he took leadership over his first large-scale nonviolent demonstration: a citywide bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott began on the day of a court hearing for Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested and fined. Under King's leadership, the African-Americans of Montgomery banded together to boycott the bus system until the city agreed to meet their demands. The boycott lasted 382 days, and ended in a Supreme Court ruling (Browder v. Gayle, 1956) declaring the segregation of bus seating as a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. On December 21, 1956, Montgomery buses became legally integrated.
A segregated bus in Florida where African Americans were relegated to the back seats.
Photo by Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Civil rights demonstrators led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (front row, left) and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (front row, right) ride the first integrated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr., courtesy of the Withers Family Trust, www.witherscollection.org
African American citizens during a bus boycott.
Photo by Don Cravens/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Bolstered by the Supreme Court victory, King and other activist clergy including Baptist ministers Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Methodist Rev. Joseph Lowery, as well as Quaker Bayard Rustin formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Their goal was to confront segregation through civil dissent with an appeal to biblical ideals. Inspired by the example of the non-violent protests led by Mahatma Gandhi in India, King worked as chairman of the SCLC to organize boycotts, marches, voting rights campaigns, and other protests for civil rights.
Six SCLC demonstrators kneeling in protest.
A boy holds up a poster for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a nonsectarian American Civil Rights group established by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., urging people to vote, in Selma, Alabama, 1965. The poster reads "We Shall Overcome — For their freedom register to vote today!"
Photo by Declan Haun/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
SCLC Protestors at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.
Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos
Southern Christian Leadership Conference pin, c. 1965.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference pin, c. 1965. Retrieved from http://www.crmvet.org/info/pins.htm
On April 12, 1963, police arrested King while he was leading a nonviolent demonstration to bring national attention to segregation and the treatment of the African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama. Police cited a recently passed ordinance, prohibiting public gathering without a government-issued permit, as the reason for King's incarceration. They placed King in solitary confinement without legal representation or outside contact.
While awaiting release, King wrote a rebuttal to an article by eight Alabama religious leaders who criticized his campaigns for justice and characterized him as an outsider to the Birmingham community. Using scraps of paper, including the margins of the Birmingham News, King crafted a defense of his actions. He also urged more leaders to unite for the cause of desegregation. These compiled notes became King's famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here...I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and jailed 29 times for acts of civil disobedience and on various trumped-up charges. The civil rights leader is pictured here in the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama, November 3, 1967.
Police released King from prison on April 19th, but tensions in Birmingham erupted in violence on May 2, during a peaceful march of 1,000 African American students. This demonstration, called the Children's Crusade, resulted in the arrest of hundreds of young people. When yet more young people gathered the following day, Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus “Bull” Connor ordered local police and fire departments to use force to end the nonviolent campaign. Televised images of local law enforcement officers clubbing children, blasting protestors with fire hoses, and leading police dog attacks triggered national outrage. Under intense public pressure, Birmingham leaders negotiated a truce with the protesters. Officials drafted a plan to desegregate the city, and removed Connor from his position on May 10.
A 17-year-old African American civil rights protestor attacked by police dogs during a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963.
AP Photo/Bill Hudson
A group of demonstrators are pushed against a doorway by the water from a fire hose in Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963. Police officers used both fire hoses and dogs to break up the nonviolent demonstration.
Photo by Charles Moore/Getty Images
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Bolstered by the events in Birmingham, King and the SCLC joined together with other major civil rights organizations to plan a march on Washington, D.C. Assembled in under three months, the march expected to attract 100,000 participants, and intended to bring further awareness to the cause of African American economic and educational equality. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people from a range of backgrounds, attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The day was filled with speeches, songs, and prayers by an array of noted figures. In the late afternoon, King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, delivering a call for racial justice and equality that came to define the civil rights movement.
Leaders of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom.
Photo by Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Several leaders of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, including Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, and Walter P. Reuther.
Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org
"We Shall Overcome"
Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers perform "We Shall Overcome" at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
King's work helped cast an international spotlight on the cause of civil rights in America, and led to the growing call for desegregation. Pressure for change was growing. In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act. On July 2 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation legally ending segregation in public places and banning discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. For his work to define this movement and unite people in the common cause of equality, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964—the youngest person ever to receive this honor.
A segregated bus station in Durham, North Carolina, 1940.
Jack Delano, At the bus station in Durham, North Carolina, May 1940, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/
The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal. This document was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States, to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education, to extend the Commission on Civil Rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, and for other purposes, July 2, 1964; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives. Photograph: Senator Richard Russell and President Lyndon B. Johnson, 12/07/1963; White House Photo Office Collection; 11/22/1963-01/20/1969; ARC 192493; NLJ-WHPO-A-VN013; Lyndon Baines Johnson Library; National Archives and Records Administration
Sign to a segregated waiting room in a bus station in Rome, Georgia, 1943.
Esther Bubley, A Greyhound bus trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Memphis, Tennessee, and the terminals. Sign at bus station. Rome, Georgia, September 1943, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC 20540 USA. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/
Segregated water fountains.
Elliott Erwitt 1950/Magnum Photos
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.
Cecil Stoughton, White House Press Office, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. displays his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize medal in Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1964. The 35-year-old King was honored for promoting the principle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement.
All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.
King’s ultimate goal of nonviolent activism was to shape the U.S. into a more ideal society, one that he often referred to as “the Beloved Community.” In his vision of unity, the experiences of poverty, racism, and violence would be replaced by the biblical ideal of an all-inclusive spirit of agapē love. Agapē is the ancient New Testament Greek word translated as “love.” King defined this kind of love as the human expression of God’s goodwill for all people, which was given freely with nothing expected in return. All conflicts, King believed, no matter the scale, could end with understanding and reconciliation through agapē love.
... the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men
As a minister, King believed his calling necessitated leading people to this vision of unity by example, and he frequently risked his life for these ideals. On April 3, 1968, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, a biblical allusion to Moses’s climb of Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land before he died. (Deuteronomy 34) King’s speech assured his followers that he too, had seen the promised land, and that like Moses he may not get there with them. Ominously, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee the very next day.
King, a modern American Moses, had become a martyr for his vision of unity. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1983, his birthday was made a national holiday, an opportunity to reflect on the life and vision of a man who, inspired by the Bible, helped his country move toward justice and unite its people around a vision of equality and peace.
We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop ... I've looked over and 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.
Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Mount Pisgah east of Jericho, and there the LORD showed him the whole land … Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘This is the land that I promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob I would give to their descendants. I have let you see it, but I will not let you go there.’ So Moses, the LORD’s servant, died…
Observing Martin Luther King Day at the MLK memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, 1995.
Eli Reed/Magnum Photos