Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Why We Celebrate

by Olivia Berard, Copy Editor

On Jan. 17, we celebrated a man who fought for civil rights in the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He devoted his existence to making the lives of African American citizens better in the time of segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. made it possible for people of different skin colors to travel on public transportation together, for children of different races to attend school together, and has transformed how we view racism today.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, to Michael King Sr. and Alberta Williams King, and was born with the name Michael King Jr. King decided to change his name after the German Protestant leader, Martin Luther. King took pride in his name change, with becoming a religious leader himself. He had an older sister, Willie Christie, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King.
The King family grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and the children attended Booker T. Washington High School. The knowledgeable King had the opportunity to skip the ninth and eleventh grades. According to the Journal of Advanced Academics only about 1% of people grade-skip. This allowed him to be 15 entering Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. There, he earned a sociology degree and then attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1948, where he became valedictorian of his class in 1951. He was later accepted into Boston University for doctoral studies. At this time, not many African Americans attended esteemed colleges such as Boston University, so King set the stage for many future leaders. He completed his Ph.D. in 1955, while he was only 25 years old. During his last year of schooling, King became the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama.
March 2, 1955, Claudette Cloven denied her seat to a white man on the Montgomery city bus. People of color were required to give up their seats to any white person that wanted to sit on public transportation. She was then arrested and taken to jail. In another instance on Dec. 2, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the first row of the “colored” section in the bus. Parks was ordered to stand up for a group of white men. She was then found guilty in a 30-minute hearing. At this time, nobody would have stood up for these women, but King decided to act for these women.
A boycott was organized by King to halt the use of public transportation. The strike was in effect for 382 days where people would walk to work while being harassed and intimidated. King’s home was directly attacked during this time. Soon after, Montgomery removed the law allowing public transportation to have segregated sections. This decision was due to legal action against the city, saying that it was unconstitutional according to Brown v. Board of Education.
Around 1960, King became a household name. He traveled around the country and the world. He also became a co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. On Oct. 19, 1960, King and a group of 75 students traveled to a department store for a lunch-counter service. They were arrested by police after not leaving the counter. The mayor at the time saw this as a potential controversy, so he negotiated for the charges to be dropped. Later, King was arrested for violating his probation during a traffic conviction. John F. Kennedy, who was president at this time, directly called Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, about the nature of King’s arrest during the traffic ticket. He was then released.
King has always been known for his nonviolent approach to protesting. The protests that he put together were similar to those in the summer of 2020. He was criticized for his rebellious behavior and people thought he was putting his supporters’ lives in danger when they would attend protests. For example, in the spring of 1963, King coordinated a protest in Birmingham, Alabama and he, along with most of his supporters were arrested. While in Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”
Fast forward to August 28, 1963, King held his March on Washington, which more than 200,000 people attended. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech. His speech would eventually end in a passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which allowed the federal government to enforce the desegregation of public facilities. King also won a Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. According to the Nobel Prize organization, he won this prestigious award for his non-violent tactics to fight for civil rights.
On March 7, 1965, the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama planned by King was met with police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Tear gas and nightsticks were used to inflict fear among the protesters. This was also a common occurrence during the BLM protests. King was not present during this protest, yet he watched it all unfold while it was televised. This day was dubbed the name “Bloody Sunday”.
Two days later, a march of 2,500 black and white people to the Pettus Bridge once again was stopped by state troopers and barricades. Instead of making their way through the forces, King led the group in prayer and returned to Selma.
Later that month on March 21, a group of approximately 2,000 people traveled to Montgomery from Selma to the state capitol, to protest Governor George Wallace, who had been pushing against the peaceful protests. The gathering turned into 25,000 people protesting outside of the state capitol. King gave a televised address and five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement continued to expand to places such as Chicago and Los Angeles. On April 3, 1968, King attended and gave a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The next day, King stood upon his motel balcony and was killed with a sniper bullet shot from the gun of James Earl Ray.
King’s life was lost, but his legacy still lives with American history today. The Black Lives Matter movements swept across the country in the summer of 2020. According to the New York Times, these protests may have been the largest in US history. And even though these protests aren’t as prevalent recently, we still believe that Martin Luther King Jr. played a large role in shaping the way we protest today.