Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  • Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.


    Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. Dr. King grew up as the son of a leading

    minister in Atlanta, Georgia, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. His mother, Mrs. Alberta Williams King,

    assisted her husband in the care of his congregation. Because of their efforts and interest in behalf of

    the congregation and the community, his parents were known as 'Momma' and 'Daddy' King. His

    community, centered on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta also influenced him. By the 1930s when he was a

    child, it was the center of business and social life in Black Atlanta and the major center for the Black

    Southeast. The community was so successful that nationwide, it was known as "Sweet Auburn". The

    residential neighborhoods of the community, and especially the one where Dr. King was born were

    known for the diversity of the backgrounds of the residents. Though all Black, the neighborhoods

    had business people, laborers, college-educated, uneducated, rich, poor and successful all living close

    to each other.

    As a boy, Dr. King experienced many of the same things most children do. He helped and played

    games with his older sister Christine and his younger brother A. D. He played baseball on vacant lots

    and rode his bicycle in the streets. He went to school at David T. Howard Elementary, three blocks

    from his home. He attended the Butler Street YMCA down Auburn Avenue. When the family moved

    to the house on Boulevard, he was attending Booker T. Washington High School, working a

    newspaper route, attending his first dances, and planning to attend college. But, Dr. King's primary

    memories of his childhood were of the sting of segregation.

    In 1941 Daddy King moved the family to a brick home. Here King continued his development and

    education until he graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. Dr. King still lived in this home when

    he attended College here in Atlanta, starting at the age of fifteen. After graduation he left for

    graduate work at Crozer Theological Seminary, then in Chester, Pennsylvania (now Colgate

    Rochester divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York), and at

    Boston University. He became pastor at The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama

    in 1954 and served there until 1960. From 1960 until 1968 he was co-pastor, with his father, of

    Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, where his grandfather, Rev. A. D. Williams had also been


    Starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956, Dr. King was also the foremost leader of the

    Civil Rights Movement. His dedication to the tactics of non-violent resistance led to successful

    campaigns in Montgomery, AL, Birmingham, AL, and Selma,AL as well as encouraging African-

    Americans throughout the South to campaign for their own freedom. After 1965, He expanded his

    work to include actions in the North, opposition to the War in Vietnam, and planning for a campaign

    to aid poor people.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray.



    Presidential Proclamation

    Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, 2012

    On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or

    rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured

    the true equality of all our people. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin

    Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.

    At a time when our Nation was sharply divided, Dr. King called on a generation of Americans to be

    "voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion." His

    example stirred men and women of all backgrounds to become foot soldiers for justice, and his

    leadership gave them the courage to refuse the limitations of the day and fight for the prospect of

    tomorrow. Because these individuals showed the resilience to stand firm in the face of the fiercest

    resistance, we are the benefactors of an extraordinary legacy of progress.

    Today, Dr. King is memorialized on the National Mall where he once spoke, a symbol of how far our

    Nation has come and a testament to the quiet heroes whose names may never appear in history

    books, but whose selflessness brought about change few thought possible. Dr. King's memorial

    reminds us that while the work of realizing his remarkable dream is unending, with persistence,

    progress is within our reach.

    On the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, we celebrate the man who fought for the America he

    knew was possible. Dr. King's faith in a God who loves all His children and a Nation grounded in the

    promise of equality would not let him rest until victory was won. As we work to meet the challenges

    of our time from fixing our schools so every child gets a world class education to ensuring all

    Americans have access to strong and secure economic opportunity let us draw strength from Dr.

    King's stirring affirmation that "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." In his

    memory, let us continue climbing toward that Promised Land, one more fair and more just for all


    NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the

    authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim

    January 16, 2012, as the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday. I encourage all Americans to observe

    this day with appropriate civic, community, and service projects in honor of Dr. King, and to visit

    www.MLKDay.gov to find Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service projects across our country.

    IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirteenth day of January, in the year of our

    Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two

    hundred and thirty-sixth.





    The Power of Nonviolent Action

    01 March 2009

    By Stephen Zunes

    Armed insurgencies impose great human costs. Nonviolent “people power” movements succeed by calling attention to

    official repression and winning support from the undecided. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San

    Francisco. He is the principal co-editor of Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999) and chairs the committee of

    academic advisers for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

    This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (PDF,

    783 KB).

    Nonviolent action campaigns have been a part of political life for millennia, challenging abuses by

    authorities, spearheading social reforms, demanding an end to colonial rule, and protesting

    militarism and discrimination.

    India’s Mohandas Gandhi and the United States’ Martin Luther King

    Jr., who were both brilliant strategic thinkers as well as great moral

    leaders, are perhaps the best-known leaders of such movements. Not

    only were they committed to nonviolent action as the most effective

    means of waging their respective struggles; they also held to a deep

    faith-based commitment to nonviolence as a personal ethic. In many

    People-power movements, such as this

    one in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, have respects, however, Gandhi and King were unusual in their personal

    helped bring down scores of

    commitment to principled nonviolence, as the vast majority of

    authoritarian regimes.

    nonviolent movements and their leaders have not been pacifists but

    embraced nonviolent action as the best strategic means to advance their struggles.

    Indeed, primarily nonviolent struggles in recent decades have not only led to significant political and

    social reforms advancing the cause of human rights, but have also even toppled repressive regimes

    from power and forced leaders to change the very nature of their governance. As a result, nonviolent

    resistance has been evolving from an ad hoc strategy associated with religious or ethical principles

    into a reflective, even institutionalized, method of struggle.

    Indeed, the past 30 years have witnessed a remarkable upsurge in nonviolent insurrections against

    autocratic rulers. Primarily nonviolent “people power” movements have been responsible for

    advancing democratic change in nearly 60 countries during this period, forcing substantial reforms in

    many countries. Other struggles, while eventually suppressed, have nevertheless posed serious

    challenges to other despots.

    In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular

    resistance to government authority that, either consciously or by necessity, eschew the use of

    weapons of modern warfare.

    Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the

    mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. Tactics may include strikes, boycotts,

    mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, refusal to pay taxes, destruction of

    symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders


    (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and

    social organization.

    Why Nonviolence Works

    For many years there was an assumption that autocratic regimes could be overthrown only through

    popular armed struggle or foreign military intervention. Yet there is an increasing awareness that

    nonviolent action can actually be more powerful than violence. A recent academic study of 323 major

    insurrections in support of self-determination and freedom from autocratic rule over the past

    century revealed that major nonviolent campaigns were successful 53 percent of the time, whereas

    primarily violent resistance campaigns were successful only 26 percent of the time. (Maria J. Stephan

    and Eric Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International

    Security, vol. 33, no. 1, Summer 2008.)

    There are several reasons why insurgents have turned away from armed struggle to embrace

    nonviolent action. One reason is a growing awareness of the increasing costs of insurgency warfare.

    Technology has given status quo powers an increasing advantage in recent years in defeating or at

    least neutralizing armed insurgencies. Even when an armed revolutionary movement is victorious,

    large segments of the population are displaced, farms and villages are destroyed, cities and much of

    the country’s infrastructure are severely damaged, the economy is wrecked, and there is widespread

    environmental devastation. The net result is an increasing realization that the benefits of waging an

    armed insurrection may not be worth the costs.

    Another factor endorsing nonviolence is the tendency, once in power, for victorious armed

    movements against dictatorships to fail in establishing pluralistic, democratic, and independent

    political systems capable of supporting social and economic development and promoting human

    rights. These shortcomings often result in part from counterrevolution, natural disasters, foreign

    intervention, trade embargoes, and other circumstances beyond a victorious popular movement’s


    However, the choice of armed struggle as a means of securing power tends to exacerbate these

    problems and creates troubles of its own. For one, armed struggle often promotes the ethos of a

    secret elite vanguard, downplaying democracy and showing less tolerance for pluralism. Often,

    disagreements that could be resolved peaceably in non-militarized institutions lead to bloody

    factional fighting. Some countries experienced military coups or civil wars not long after armed

    revolutionary movements ousted colonialists or indigenous dictators. Others became overly

    dependent on foreign powers for weapons to keep them in power.

    There is also an increasing awareness that armed resistance tends to upset undecided elements of

    the population, who then seek security in the government. When facing a violent insurgency, a

    government can easily justify its repression. But force used against unarmed resistance movements

    usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. Some have compared this

    phenomenon with the martial art of aikido, in that the opposition movement leverages the power of

    state repression to advance the movement’s ends.


    In addition, unarmed campaigns involve far more participants beyond the young able-bodied men

    normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas, taking advantage of a popular movement’s majority

    support. Unarmed resistance also encourages the creation of

    alternative institutions, which further undermine the repressive

    status quo and form the basis for a new independent and

    democratic order.

    Armed resistance often backfires by legitimizing the use of

    repressive tactics. Violence from the opposition is often

    welcomed by authoritarian governments and even encouraged

    through the use of agents provocateurs, because it then justifies

    state repression. But state violence unleashed on unarmed

    dissidents often triggers a turning point in nonviolent struggles. A

    government attack against peaceful demonstrators can be the

    spark that transforms periodic protests into a full-scale


    King and Gandhi embraced nonviolence

    Sowing Division

    both in principle and as strategy.

    Unarmed resistance movements also tend to sow divisions within pro-government circles. There are

    often disagreements regarding how to deal effectively with the resistance, since few governments

    are as prepared to deal with unarmed revolts as they are to quash armed ones. Violent repression of

    a peaceful movement can often alter popular and elite perceptions of the legitimacy of power, which

    is why state officials usually use less repression against nonviolent movements. In addition, some

    pro-government elements become less concerned about the consequences of a compromise with

    insurgents if their resistance is nonviolent.

    Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and noncooperation by unmotivated

    police and military personnel, whereas armed revolts legitimize the role of the government’s

    coercive apparatus, enhancing its self-perception as the protector of civil society. The moral power

    of nonviolence is crucial in the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of key

    parties: the public, political elites, and the military, most of whom have no difficulty supporting the

    use of violence against violent insurrections.

    The efficacy of nonviolent resistance in dividing supporters of the status quo is apparent not only in

    rendering government troops less effective, but also in challenging the attitudes of an entire nation

    and even foreign actors, as in the South African struggle against apartheid. Pictures of peaceful

    protesters — including whites, members of the clergy, and other “upstanding citizens” — broadcast

    on television worldwide lent legitimacy to antiapartheid forces and undermined the South African

    government in a way that the armed rebellion was unable to do. As nonviolent resistance within the

    country escalated, external pressure in the form of economic sanctions and other solidarity tactics by

    the international community raised the costs of maintaining the apartheid system.

    Due to increased global interdependence, the nonlocal audience for a conflict may be just as

    important as the immediate community. Just as Gandhi played to British citizens in Manchester and

    London, organizers of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South were communicating to the entire

    nation, and especially to the administration of President John Kennedy.


    Insurgency within the Soviet bloc was disseminated by television broadcasts that spread the news

    from country to country, legitimating local protests that no longer seemed like isolated events

    organized by unstable dissidents. The prominent role of the global media during the anti-Marcos

    people power movement in 1986 was instrumental in forcing the U.S. government to scale back its

    support of the Philippine dictator. Israeli repression of nonviolent protests by Palestinians during the

    first intifada of the late 1980s brought unprecedented international sympathy to their struggle

    against foreign military occupation. As Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi observed, the

    Palestinians had “succeeded at last in conveying the reality of their victimization to world public


    As a proactive ingredient in nonviolent resistance, the creation of alternative structures provides

    both a moral and a practical underpinning for efforts aimed at bringing about fundamental social

    change. Parallel structures in civil society may render state control increasingly impotent, as they did

    throughout Eastern Europe leading up to the events of 1989.

    In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos lost power in 1986 not through the defeat of his troops and the

    storming of the Malacañang Palace, but from the withdrawal of sufficient support for his authority,

    so that the palace became the only part of the country he could effectively control. On the same day

    that Marcos was officially sworn in for another term as president in a state ceremony, his opponent

    — Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated Marcos critic — was symbolically sworn in as the

    people’s president. Given that most Filipinos saw Marcos’s election as fraudulent, the vast majority

    offered its allegiance to President Aquino rather than to President Marcos. The transfer of allegiance

    from one source of authority and legitimacy to another is a key element of a successful nonviolent


    In the course of a successful nonviolent revolution, and with adequate popular participation, political

    authority may be wrested from the state and invested in institutions of civil society as these parallel

    institutions grow in effectiveness and legitimacy. The state may become increasingly impotent and

    irrelevant as parallel nongovernmental institutions take over an increasing portion of the tasks of

    governing a society, providing services to the populace, and creating functional equivalents to the

    institutions of the state.

    Indigenous Roots

    Citing the financial support provided by some outside foundations funded by Western governments

    to some opposition groups that later took part in the so-called color revolutions among nations of

    Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, some authoritarian regimes have denied the popular

    legitimacy of these pro-democracy movements by claiming they were simply “soft coups” plotted by

    the United States or other Western powers. Such outside funding cannot cause a nonviolent liberal

    democratic revolution to take place, however, any more than Soviet financial and material support

    for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place.

    One Burmese human rights activist, referring to his country’s centuries-old tradition of popular

    resistance, noted how the very idea of an outsider having to orchestrate the Burmese people to

    engage in a nonviolent action campaign is like “teaching a grandma to peel onions.”

    Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are the result of certain objective

    conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their

    jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies

    on the line unless they had a sincere motivation to do so.


    Foreign powers have historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’etats,

    and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent people

    power movements, by contrast, make regime change possible through empowering pro-democratic


    There is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government or a foreign

    nongovernmental organization could put together, because the history, culture, and political

    alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government or NGO can recruit or mobilize the

    large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging

    the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.

    As a result, the best hope for advancing freedom and democracy among oppressed nations of the

    world comes not from armed struggle and not from the intervention of foreign powers, but from

    democratic civil society organizations engaged in strategic nonviolent action.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S.


    Nonviolent Thought Through U.S. History

    01 March 2009

    By Ira Chernus

    Rooted in 16th century Europe, the intellectual traditions of nonviolent thought and action were developed in the United

    States in the 19th and 20th centuries and traveled abroad to Asia and Africa. Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at

    the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.

    This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change

    (http://www.america.gov/media/pdf/ejs/0309ej.pdf PDF, 783 KB).

    When people set out to create social change, they have to decide

    whether to use violence to achieve their aims. Some who opt for

    nonviolence may have no objection to violence in principle. They just

    believe that violence will not succeed in gaining their goals, or they

    are afraid of getting hurt, or they can’t persuade others to join them

    in violence. Theirs is the nonviolence of convenience, or pragmatic


    Nonviolent Vietnam War protests in the

    1960s followed the example of the civil

    rights movement. But over the centuries there have been many who might have gained

    their goals through violence — who had the means, the courage, and

    the strength to do violence — yet freely decided not to do violence under any circumstances. They

    followed the way of principled nonviolence. Though many have been inspired to adopt principled

    nonviolence for emotional and cultural reasons, they have also been moved by the rich intellectual

    tradition that offers logical arguments on behalf of nonviolence.


    That intellectual tradition runs like an underground stream through U.S. history. Its roots go back to

    the Anabaptist Christians of Europe in the 16th century, the era when Protestant Christianity began.

    The Anabaptists rejected violence because they were committed to staying separated from the

    mainstream society and its many conflicts. Some of their descendants came to the United States,

    where they established what are known as the historic peace churches.

    The distinctive American contribution came when other Christians, who were deeply involved in the

    conflicts of society, decided on principle to pursue political and social change using only nonviolent

    means. The process began in colonial times, before the United States declared its independence

    from Britain, among members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Their strict commitment

    to nonviolence led some of them to oppose the payment of taxes for war, the enslavement of

    African Americans, and the persecution and displacement of Native American peoples. But the

    Quakers were primarily a religious group, whose beliefs led them to nonviolence.

    The great turning point came in the 1820s and 1830s, when a group of people from different religious

    backgrounds began to demand the abolition of slavery in the United States. These abolitionists were

    nearly all Christians, and not all of them were committed to pursuing their goal nonviolently. Those

    who were, however, created the first group that formed around a goal of political-social change and

    then chose nonviolence as their means. They believed in God as the supreme ruler of the universe.

    Therefore, they said, no human should ever exercise authority over another human. On that basis

    they denounced slavery. But since violence is always a way of exercising authority, they were led

    logically to renounce violence, too.

    The same line of thinking influenced the great essayist Henry David Thoreau to go to jail rather than

    pay taxes to a government that supported war and slavery. In his famous 1849 essay “Civil

    Disobedience,” Thoreau explained that he would never obey an unjust law, regardless of what

    punishment he received, because people should follow their own conscience rather than passively

    follow the government’s demands. Thoreau’s main goal was to maintain his own moral virtue and his

    freedom to act on the truth as he saw it. But he did point out that if enough people refused to obey

    unjust laws, they could “clog the machinery” of the state.

    Tolstoy and Gandhi

    The writings of the abolitionists and Thoreau inspired the great

    Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to become an ardent exponent of

    Christian nonviolence. His writings, in turn, helped to shape the

    ideas of the greatest of all nonviolent activists, the leader of India’s

    independence movement, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. In the

    20th century, the ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi came back to the

    United States and inspired many Americans, who often did not know

    that so much of the theory of nonviolence had originated in their

    Abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivers an

    own country. antislavery speech on Boston Common

    in April 1851.

    For Gandhi, nonviolence was more a matter of intention than actual behavior. He defined “violence”

    as the intention to coerce another person to do something the other person does not want to do.

    Nonviolent actions such as boycotts, blockades, and disobedience to laws may look coercive, but if

    done in a true spirit of nonviolence, they are merely ways of following the moral truth as one sees it.

    They leave others free to respond in any way they choose. A follower of Gandhian nonviolence says,


    in the spirit of Thoreau, “I am doing what I feel I must do. Now you do whatever you feel you must

    do. You may jail me, beat me, or even kill me. But you cannot take away my freedom to be true to my


    Gandhi recognized that he was calling all people to act on their subjective view of truth. No one can

    know the whole truth, he said, and we must be open to the possibility that we will later see that we

    were wrong. That is why we must never aim to impose our own views on others. But we must take a

    firm stand — even unto death — on the truth as we see it now. Only then can we discover for

    ourselves what the truth is in any given situation.

    Since principled nonviolence means non-coercion, people committed to nonviolence believe they are

    never trying to make a situation turn out the way they want it. They are working not for selfish

    purposes but for the good of the whole world as they see it. In fact, according to Gandhi, they should

    never be concerned about the outcome of their actions at all. They should only be sure that they are

    doing the morally right thing at every moment. Following the moral truth is both the means and the

    end of nonviolence; a right process is the goal. Therefore, nonviolence should not be judged by its

    ability to produce results.

    The most famous exponent of nonviolence in the United States was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the

    great spokesman for the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. King agreed with

    Gandhi that nonviolent actions must always be taken out of concern for the well-being of all people,

    even those who are unjust and oppressive. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,”

    he proclaimed, “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all


    Unlike Gandhi, though, King was concerned about the results of his actions. He judged the strategies

    of the civil rights movement not only by their intrinsic moral virtue, but also by their effectiveness in

    ending discrimination against black people. He wanted to provoke conflict and win political victories.

    But as long as one is working nonviolently for justice and equality, King argued, the conflict will yield

    greater justice and peace for everyone. So in his view, there is no conflict between success for

    oneself and benefit for society: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of

    morality coalesce with our self-interest.” Even when our acts involve unyielding confrontation and

    pressure, he said, as long as we are motivated by selfless love offered equally to both sides in the

    conflict, we are working to harmonize the opposing sides and improve life for all. On that point,

    Gandhi certainly would have agreed.

    Results From Nonviolence

    The civil rights movement demonstrated that nonviolence can produce results, if one chooses to

    judge by that standard. In the 1960s, the nonviolent movement to end the Vietnam War — largely

    inspired by the successes of civil rights activists — played a significant role in persuading the U.S.

    government to remove its troops from Vietnam.

    Up to the 1960s, most Americans who committed themselves to principled nonviolence were moved

    by Christian religious beliefs. But the protest movement against the Vietnam War brought in many

    who were not Christian. The Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) grew significantly. An

    emerging Buddhist peace movement was guided by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn and, later, the

    Dalai Lama.


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