Today our country observes Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I’m just going to be honest; I don’t know much about Reverend King. We didn’t study MLK Jr. when I was in high school; New York State didn’t make the 3rd Monday of January a holiday until 1983 (to really date myself, the year I graduated from high school). So, what I really know about MLK are the “obvious” things – his civil rights marches, Nobel Peace Prize, and his “I have a dream” speech.
But who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929. He was born as Michael King, named after his father who was also born Michael King. However, after a trip to Germany in 1931, Michael King Sr. changed his own name in homage to historic German theologian Martin Luther. Michael King Jr. was two years old at the time and King Sr. made the decision to change his son’s name to Martin Luther as well.
Reverend King first came to national attention in 1955, when he and other civil rights activists were arrested after leading a boycott of a Montgomery, Alabama, transportation company which required nonwhites to surrender their seats to whites, and stand or sit at the back of the bus. The boycott lasted for 381 days.
There were many more protests, and dozens of arrests, that followed over the next several years. In 1963, Reverend King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, a defense of nonviolent resistance to racism. Also, in 1963, Reverend King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial as more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
So powerful was the movement he inspired, that Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the same year King himself was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. However, his nonviolent crusade for civil and human rights was far from over. On March 7, 1967, on a date now known as “Bloody Sunday”, voting rights marchers being led by 25-year-old John Lewis, were attacked and beaten by police in Selma AL. Reverend King arrived in Selma and helped to peacefully lead the marchers from Selma to Montgomery.
Reverend King was shot and killed in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968.
Those are, of course, the barest of facts about a huge civil rights leader and icon. Here are some lesser-known facts about him:
He convinced Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed “Uhura” in the original Star Trek series, to continue with the role after the first season. Nichols stated he told her not to leave the show because she was not only playing a black person as a main character on TV, but she was also playing a character that didn’t conform to the stereotypical black person of the day. Rather, Uhura was portrayed as an intelligent member of the crew and an equal to those around her. (and Whoopi Goldberg said that when she first saw the character of Uhura on TV, she said “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!”)
According to Tom Houcks, who “accidentally” became the King family’s chauffeur one summer, said Reverend King was a terrible driver, but also loved to drive while blasting WAOK radio in Atlanta. Mr. Houcks dropped out of high school to join the civil rights movement. After meeting MLK at an event, he decided to volunteer for Reverend King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Reverend King picked Mr. Houcks up in person from the bus station, and invited him to lunch. At some point Mrs. King asked Houcks if he had a driver’s license, and when Houck said yes, she asked “Would you mind taking the kids to school tomorrow?” And that’s how Houcks became an “accidental” chauffeur. (Houcks also says that Reverend King was a chain smoker who tried to hide his smoking from Mrs. King, who was always trying to get him to quit. Frequently, Reverend King would ask Houcks to hold his cigarettes for him…)
Obviously, no one can do justice to any person in a 3-minute-read blog post; and there have been hundreds of books and documentaries on Reverend King’s life. I fear I’m actually doing a disservice to Reverend King with the small amount I’m offering here. If you would like to know more about Reverend King and his life, here are some books that are available through the library:
“My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Martin Luther King, III
“Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?” by Bonnie Bader
“The Seminarian: Martin Luther King, Jr. comes of age” by Patrick Parr
“Martin Luther King, Jr., Day” by Jill Foran
There is also some controversy surrounding Reverend King’s life and legacy; again, as I’m nowhere near a King scholar I don’t feel qualified to write about something of which I have very little grasp. But it seems disingenuous to not mention it, at least. (I can say with some level of confidence that J. Edgar Hoover really, really didn’t like him…)
It does seem fitting that today, on this particular Monday at this particular time in our country’s history, that we take time to honor a man whose life mission was to work for civil rights for all, and to do it in a non-violent manner. Here is a quote from Reverend King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and I genuinely hope and pray that the people heading to Washington DC for the inauguration are able to heed it its message:
“Non-violent resistance is not for cowards. It is not a quiet, passive acceptance of evil. One is passive and non-violent physically, but very active spiritually, always seeking ways to persuade the opponent of advantages to the way of love, cooperation, and peace.”
Stay safe, friends, keep wearing your mask and washing your hands, and hopefully find peace and quiet along the way.