Professor Donald Elder: The 50 Greatest Americans – Martin Luther King

Jun 30, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The 50 Greatest Americans – Martin Luther King

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) In my mind, and in the mind of, I would say millions of people, there is no name more associated with civil rights than Martin Luther King. Today, we shall attempt to provide a cursory overview of this great man’s life. When and where was he born and what was his early childhood like?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. His birth name was Michael King, and that was also the name of his father. He was known by that name until he was five years old. At that time his father, who was a Baptist minister, went to Germany for the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress. The elder King was inspired to change his name to Martin Luther King as an homage to the famous religious reformer, and at the same time he changed his son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended a segregated grade school in Atlanta, and attended a church with an African-American congregation. When he was young, King was considered to be a gifted singer, and sang as part of a choir at the premiere of the movie “Gone With The Wind” in Atlanta in 1939. In many ways, King had a difficult youth. He suffered from depression, for example, and his father frequently punished him with beatings. Moreover, King witnessed racism on a daily basis. Still, King managed to persevere, and would grow up to become one of the most influential Americans of all time.

2)  His formative years–his years in high school and college- what do we know about them?

As had been the case with his primary school experience, King also attended a segregated high school in Atlanta. Because of his academic abilities, King was able to enter Booker T. Washington High School as a sophomore rather than as a freshman. He soon proved himself to be a skillful public speaker, joining the school’s debate team. World War II was in progress while King was in high school, and during that conflict many colleges saw a severe decline in enrollment.

One of the affected institutions was Morehead College, a historically black college located in Atlanta. To compensate for declining enrollment, Morehead began to allow high school juniors to enroll there if they could pass the school’s entrance examination. King was able to do so, and entered Morehead in 1944 when he was only 15 years old. Although he pursued a major in Sociology, King made the decision in the summer of 1947 that upon graduation he would go to divinity school. Accordingly, in 1948 he enrolled at the Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and in 1951 he received his Bachelor of Divinity degree.

This was followed by his admission into Boston University to pursue a doctorate in theology. King received that degree in 1955, and thereafter was known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

3) I am unsure where to start with his adult years and endeavors. What was his first endeavor into the realm of civil rights?

While he was working on his doctorate in 1954, King was offered the pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Accepting this position, King and his wife Coretta moved to Montgomery and began his ministry. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested by the Montgomery Police Department for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. We know today that civil rights leaders in Montgomery had been discussing a possible bus boycott even before the arrest of Parks, and thus the incident played perfectly into their plans. Parks was a highly respected member of the African-American community in Montgomery, and her arrest made many residents of the city angry enough to embrace the concept of a boycott. All that was needed was a leader to coordinate the African-American response. Although King was quite young, the city’s civil rights leaders considered him to be the perfect choice. This was because the city’s other African-American ministers were considered to be too subservient to the white elite in Montgomery. The confidence shown in King was definitely rewarded: he guided the boycott flawlessly, and succeeded in convincing Montgomery to abandon its discriminatory policy regarding bus travel. This incident instantaneously made him a leader in the civil rights movement.

4) His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” still resounds in the minds of many. What were the circumstances surrounding this event?

After his success in Montgomery, King spearheaded various other campaigns to help advance the cause of civil rights. This lead him in 1963 to Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was considered to be one of the most racially biased cities in America. As was his custom by then, King chose a path of nonviolent protests to confront the racist policies found in that city. Birmingham’s city leaders responded by seeking an injunction against demonstrations of any type, and such an imprimatur was granted by a circuit court justice. King chose to disregard this ruling, and on April 12, 1963 he led a peaceful protest in Birmingham. For this, he was arrested and put in the city jail. As it so happened, eight white religious leaders in Birmingham had on that day had a letter published in the local newspaper that chided King for his attempts to change the status quo through activism rather than through the courts. This was brought to King’s attention, and while in jail King penned a response that is known today as “The Letter From Birmingham Jail.” In it, King argued in favor of civil disobedience against unjust laws. King’s attorney managed to get the letter out of the jail cell King was held in, and it was published in various magazines during the summer of 1963. It is regarded today as being one of the most eloquent calls for civil rights ever penned by an American.

5) I doubt any living American does not know about his “I have a Dream” speech. What was the background to this event?

Initially, King had favored the candidacy of Richard Nixon for president in 1960, but because of support for King offered by the Kennedy while he was incarcerated had led him to switch his political allegiance in the election that fall.

Kennedy initially proved a disappointment to King, however, as the new president did not seem to be firm in his commitment to the advancement of the civil rights movement. As a result, King came up with the idea of a march on Washington DC to publicize his cause. On August 28, 1963, King led approximately 250,000 people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered a 17-minute speech. Although it is known as the “I Have A Dream” speech, it is interesting to note that in the written copy of the speech, this passage is not included. Historians therefore believe that King either created the famous passage off the top of his head, or at the very least he had merely thought about it beforehand.

However it came about, that portion of the speech had an immediate impact on the movement. After the speech, Kennedy called in a nationally televised address for a civil rights act. Kennedy would be assassinated before this could be accomplished, but Lyndon Johnson would sign such a landmark act in 1964.

6) Sadly, like many famous people, he left us to soon- the victim of an assassination. But his work lives on. What can you possibly say to summarize the impact of this man on Civil Rights in America?

Today, King is recognized for his greatness, but we should never forget that during his life King faced a great deal of personal animosity. Indeed, by the time of his death King had lost a great deal of support from northern whites because of his adamant opposition to the Vietnam War. In addition, King had pointed out an uncomfortable truth to northern whites: while there was little legal discrimination in that part of the country, African-Americans found formidable de facto barriers to equality (especially in the area of housing). Ironically, King had also lost favor with many African-Americans because he did not seem militant enough in his approach to civil rights. But King never wavered in his determination to make the country a better place for all, and this is a legacy that no American should ever forget.

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