‘If physical death is the price I must
pay to free my brothers and sisters from
the permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.’
LUTHER KING was born on 15 January 1929. His father was the minister
of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, Georgia. It was this
vibrant and confident tradition of African-American Christianity that
fashioned King’s childhood, inspired his sense of identity and
purpose, and sustained his great convictions. As a little boy, he saw
for himself the violence of racial hatred, and the oppression of
African Americans at every turn in their daily lives.
At the age of
fifteen he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta. Then he travelled on
to Crozier Theological College in the north of the country. Here he
met students from all backgrounds, and matured in the company of his
peers, cultivating his gifts for intellectual life and finding a new
breadth of experience. He was ordained.
In the 1950s
African-American communities were becoming increasingly vocal against
racial segregation and persecution, drawing on what was already a
rich tradition of protest against oppression, and now transforming it
into a new, campaigning force for change. Martin Luther King’s
first church was Dexter Avenue, Montgomery, in Alabama. As a leading
light in the community he was soon drawn into a demonstration against
segregation on the city’s bus service. It was brilliantly
successful. King soon formed the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference and pressed ahead in his
fight for justice. The cost that he and his own family paid for his new
work was all too evident; there were death threats and bombs. Police
harassment and imprisonment lay ahead.
King’s prophetic vision combined an explicitly Christian language
of freedom and justice with an appeal to American democracy. Peaceful
protests would affirm the dignity of African-Americans and embarrass
their oppressors before the eyes of the world. His approach was
essentially Gandhian. Violence bred violence only. Love must reply to
federal society the southern states of America enjoyed great freedom
to legislate for themselves. But the central government in Washington
also had the power - if the will existed - to overrule and overturn
their decisions in the name of the nation.
Rights Movement was both regional and national. In August 1963 there
occurred a massive public march on Washington, perhaps the greatest
statement made by the movement. A civil rights act was passed by
congress on 2 July 1964; other acts framed to advance or protect the
political rights of African American citizens followed.
Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But the
violence that had always pursued him would soon claim him. Only a
year later, on 4 April 1968, he was shot dead in Memphis. He was
thirty-nine years old. Today he is widely celebrated as one of the
great prophetic leaders of the later twentieth century, and his name
still inspires those who follow his call for Justice.