Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15th 1929, in the heart of the American south. From an early age he was aware that black people were not treated as equal citizens in America. Four million Africans had been torn from their homes and shipped to America to work as slaves. Even though slavery had been abolished by Abraham Lincoln in 1869, most blacks still lived in poverty in the richest nation on earth. They earned half of white people's wages; many could not vote; they lived in ghettos and they were segregated (separated) in public places. Some whites (like a secret society called the Ku Klux Klan) wanted slavery reintroduced and used violence against black people.
Martin Luther King was a Christian. He became a doctor of theology and in 1954 a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama. He believed that the only way to achieve equality was by non-violent and peaceful forms of protest. Not all blacks agreed with him. The Black Power movement (led by Malcolm X) believed that equality would only be achieved by force, because whites refused to listen.
In Montgomery black people could only sit at the back of buses and even the old had to give up their seat if a white person asked them. Martin Luther King organised a 'bus boycott' (when black people refused to use the buses until they were desegregated). This movement became known as the Civil Rights movement and in 1960 Martin Luther King became its leader. In 1956 the government passed a law making it illegal to segregate people on buses.
Martin Luther King campaigned endlessly. In 1957 he spoke to a crowd of 40,000 in Washington at a 'freedom march'. He organised various forms of peaceful protest. Often the police reacted with violence. In 1960 he led a march of a quarter of a million people to Washington D.C. demanding that black people be given the vote.
Throughout his life Martin Luther King was confronted by violence. His home was bombed, he was stabbed, his family received death threats but he kept to his Christian belief that violence and hatred could only be conquered by love and forgiveness. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1965 equal voting rights were given to black people.
In 1967 America became involved in the Vietnam War. Over 400,000 Americans were fighting in the war and thousands of Vietnamese civilians had died. In a Christmas Eve speech in 1976, Martin Luther King said humankind 'is a child of God, made in His image ... until men see this everywhere ... we will be fighting wars.'
In 1968 a white man called James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King dead in Memphis. The world was stunned. He was only 39. His wife Coretta later wrote: 'The killers of the dream could end his mortal existence with a single bullet but not all the bullets in all the arsenals in the world can affect his death.'
In pairs, discuss what might be said if Martin Luther King met Malcolm X.
Conduct an interview between the two.
THINGS TO DO
Write a page about what it was like to be black in America before 1970.
'An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.'
(Martin Luther King) 'Everybody can be great. Because everyone can serve.'
(Martin Luther King)
'We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to humanity.'
(Martin Luther King)
FOR YOUR FOLDERS – (LITERACY)
What do the following words mean? How do they fit into the story of Martin Luther King?