Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968)
Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) — Of political leaders, statesmen, and great figures with national and international influence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is in a class by himself. Before the twentieth century faded into history and time, King, because of his commitment to humanitarian principles and values, had elevated himself into a universal political icon admired and beloved by millions.
Before his death, he was a living legend. The international community, in awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, recognized the global significance of his work and life. Twenty years later, in 1983, the U.S. government honored him for this same commitment with a national holiday. Beyond these international and national awards, many states, counties, and cities have named streets, highways, parks, buildings, bridges, centers, fellowships, prizes, and endowed academic chairs in his honor. Cultural institutions and individuals have created plays, songs, poems, pageants, bronze busts, and statues as tributes to him.
There have been theater movies, television movies and programs, radio programs and presentations, public school presentations, and countless readings of his speeches, as well as grand orations and speeches about him and his influence. Since his death, every U.S. president has issued presidential proclamations on his birthday to honor him on behalf of the nation. Words of honor and praise have been continuous. In point of fact, they have never stopped. Beyond the words and visual images, there have been the printed thoughts. Doctoral dissertations, senior and master’s theses, books, book chapters, scholarly journal articles, newspaper and magazine articles, and children’s works are in constant flow to the public and to the political elites of the nation and the international community.
No year passes without some new discussion, debate, and revelation about Reverend King. But this steady stream of accounts is not necessarily singing his praises. Critics and criticism abound in this ever-growing voluminous literature. Yet most of it is positive and commemorative. His legendary status in life has not only grown with his death but has in retrospect also pushed his critics to the margins and sidelines. His own papers, letters, and writings are now headed for their own special archives for future generations of scholars and laypersons to study. He is becoming a man for the ages.
BIRTH AND FAMILY
Martin Luther King Jr.’s parents, Michael King and Alberta Williams, were married on Thanksgiving Day 1926 in Atlanta, Georgia, at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his wife’s father, the Reverend A. D. Williams was the pastor. The newly married couple moved in with the wife’s parents. It was in this household that Michael Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. He was the second child in the family, preceded by his sister, Christine, and later followed by a brother, Alfred Daniel (A. D.) in 1930. Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck when Reverend Williams died of a heart attack in March 1931. The son-in-law, King’s father, who was already associate pastor, with the help of his outspoken mother-in-law became pastor of Ebenezer after about seven months. In a short time span, Reverend King rescued the bankrupt church, reformed its internal structure, put it on a sound financial footing, and launched an outreach program for the sick and shut-ins. His ministry proved so successful that at the end of his first year, he was the highest paid minister in Atlanta. By the end of his second year, he asked his church to send him on a summer tour of the Holy Land, Europe, and Africa. They did, and part of the tour carried him into Germany and the village where Martin Luther had defied the Catholic Church in 1517. Upon his return home, the Reverend Mike King changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King, senior and junior. As his father moved up in the social, religious, and political circles in Atlanta, ‘‘M. L.’’ or ‘‘Little Mike,’’ began elementary school first at Yonge Street, then David T. Howard School, and by the seventh and eighth grades he attended the Atlanta University Laboratory High School. However, it closed at the end of King’s eighth-grade year, and he returned to public education at Booker T. Washington High School, where he skipped the ninth and twelfth grades. Morehouse College, the all-male college that his father had graduated fromin 1930, found its student enrollment declining as a result of WorldWar II and instituted an early-admission program—taking bright young tenth and eleventh graders as freshmen. King was admitted to his father’s college after the eleventh grade and, with a major in sociology, graduated in 1948. During his junior year at Morehouse College, King gave his trial sermon at Ebenezer and was shortly thereafter ordained and made an associate minister in his father’s church. Prior to graduating in 1948, King applied to and was accepted at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. After three years of study of the dominant theologians of his time, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Mohandas Gandhi, King decided to attend graduate school and attain a Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion. During his last year at Crozier, he applied to Yale University, Boston University, and Edinburgh University in Scotland. Yale turned him down, and Edinburgh became less interesting. Thus, in September 1951 he began his doctoral studies at Boston.