Profiles in Greatness – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t graduate from high school. He skipped the ninth and the 12th grades and went on to Morehouse College at 15. While at college, King met regularly with civil rights leader, theologian and teacher Howard Thurman, who had attended Morehouse with King’s father. In his travels, Thurman conferred with world leaders, including Mohandas Gandhi. In their meeting, Gandhi expressed his belief to Thurman that African-Americans might have the opportunity to spread the message of nonviolence throughout the world. His message was heard loud and clear, thanks to a young boy from Atlanta.

After King graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 1955, he received his Doctor of Philosophy from Boston University. While finishing his doctorate, he married Coretta Scott on the lawn of her parents’ home. The Kings’ family grew to eventually include four children.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

It didn’t take King long to step into a leadership role in the civil rights movement. One year after becoming pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. A few months after 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and comply with the Jim Crow laws of the South, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks took the same stand. Parks was arrested, and King led a boycott of the bus line that lasted 385 days. During the boycott, King’s house was bombed and he was arrested. But the nonviolent protest worked: The United States Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that racial segregation must cease on all Montgomery public buses.

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of civil rights activists and African-American churches. The SCLC carried out nonviolent protests that were widely publicized in print and on television, effectively raising the importance of the civil rights movement to the forefront of American public opinion. King led marches for voting rights, labor rights and desegregation, sometimes facing violent resistance from authorities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were triumphs for the SCLC and King.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

In 1958, King was signing copies of his first book Strive Toward Freedom in Harlem, when a woman approached him and stabbed him in the chest. X-rays showed that the blade was on the edge of his aorta. The next morning, a story in The New York Times stated that had King so much as sneezed, he would have died. The civil rights leader received letters and cards from the governor of New York and from the president and vice president of the United States, but it was a letter from a young girl that he claimed meant the most to him. It read:

“Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

King would later craft part of his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech based on this letter, saying, “And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze…. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.”

“And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

The 1963 March on Washington set the stage for a dramatic moment in the history of the United States. King established himself as a legendary orator, and the public awareness of the civil rights movement reached a new level. More than 250,000 people of all races attended the event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination through nonviolent means. And in keeping with his beliefs, he began to vocalize his opposition to the war in Vietnam, despite hostility, continued death threats and aggressive surveillance by the FBI.

“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

On Feb. 4, 1968, King delivered a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Two months later, the same speech was read as his eulogy. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national U.S. holiday in 1986. But it was not the awards or the accolades that King was most proud of. As his own words stated at his memorial:

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long…. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that’s not important…. I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody…. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

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