Martin Luther King Jr was a famous civil rights leader whose birthday we commemorate due to his activism. He was a significant figure in the civil rights movement. His “I Have a Dream Speech” is taught, recited, and played in schools for children across the country. While it is easy to focus on the impact of his work, it can be difficult to remember how everyone, including great men, had to start somewhere.
The King family has always fought for racial equality to some degree or form. His father, a pastor, was involved with combating racial prejudice and segregation in Atlanta. While his teenage years saw King doubting his faith, he regained it and joined the ministry. At the age of 15, he began to attend Morehouse College.
King’s career in the civil rights movement gained traction in his mid-twenties in 1955. He had graduated with his doctorate and moved to Montgomery, Alabama as a pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The NAACP promoted King to the leading organizer during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King’s powerful rhetoric skills and his reputable connections were part of the reason the NAACP granted him the position.
The boycott proved to be a success. It lasted for a year, and its participants met with violence and harassment. King’s home was attacked and bombed during this time. Yet, the boycott lifted the segregated transportation laws in Montgomery. The protest efforts and the previous Supreme Court decision based on Brown v. Board of Education resulted in its success. It also propelled King as a leading figure in the black community.
In 1957, King and other religious civil rights leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its purpose was in part to organize the power of Black churches. Mahatma Gandhi inspired the organization to engage in nonviolent protest. This position was advocated strongly by King’s mentor and advisor, Bayard Rustin. His involvement with the Southern Christian Leadership led to him gaining national attention.
King would return to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to become a co-pastor in Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father in 1960. During this year, he began working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was sent to jail due to his involvement with the protests. His national reputation led to then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy putting political pressure on King’s release by this time.
Within five years, King gained rapid national attention and notoriety for his involvement with the civil rights movement. By the age of thirty, he became a prominent figure in the movement. While it might be easy to forget that King was a man who needed to establish himself, the work he completed during his life will forever be remembered.
Written by Claudia Piwowarczyk
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