When a gunman, on April 4, 1968, shot and killed the man affectionately known as “ML” by friends and close associates, he cut short the life of America’s most prominent advocate for the rights of African Americans and all people around the world laboring under the yoke of oppression.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life was rooted in faith in God and the belief in the equality of all humankind. His legacy is being observed on the annual national holiday set aside in his honor the third Monday of every January.
King was born Michael Luther King Jr., later changing his first name to Martin. He was a member of a family with a long history of church leadership at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
His grandfather served as pastor from 1914 to 1931 and was succeeded by his father, with Martin as co-pastor starting in 1960 until his death.
Martin received his early education in Georgia’s segregated public schools, graduating from high school at age 15. He received a bachelor of arts in 1948 from Morehouse College, the alma mater of his father and grandfather.
He studied theology for three years at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he became president of the predominantly white senior class, and was awarded the bachelor of divinity in 1951.
King next attended Boston University on a fellowship from Crozer to pursue graduate studies and obtained his master’s and doctoral degree.
While in Boston, he met and married Coretta Scott and two sons and two daughters were born to the couple.
King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954. By then he was already a strong advocate for civil rights and had been chosen as a member of the executive committee of the NAACP.
As a leader of the campaign by African Americans for equality in citizenship, King led a 382-day bus boycott in December 1955 that is often referred to as the first great black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the country.
Through the efforts of King and several colleagues, civil rights was placed squarely on the forefront of the American consciousness, reinforced by the determination of the leaders that the movement be nonviolent.
Opponents of equality for African Americans did not remain quiet. During the days of the bus boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed and he suffered personal abuse. But the events of the day cemented his role as a major American figure.
King and other leaders won a milestone victory on Dec. 21, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the laws requiring segregation on buses as unconstitutional.
A MAN GUIDED BY SCRIPTURE
Elected in 1957 as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), “ML” looked to the Bible for organization guidance, and for its operation he looked to the life and works of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led nonviolent movements in South Africa and India.
Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled more than six million miles and delivered more than 2,500 speeches to address injustice. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which includes the famous statement “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is a manifesto for the movement.
He also organized voter-registration campaigns in Alabama and led a large, peaceful March on Washington where he delivered his signature address, l Have a Dream.
King was arrested more than 20 times and suffered physical attack at least four times. One of his crowning achievements was winning the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 1964, at age 35, the youngest person to receive the honor.
“ML” was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. It took many years, but the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial finally was dedicated on Oct. 23, 2010, at the West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., largely through the efforts of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity to which he belonged.
Photo: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.