As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this Monday, let us reflect and remember what it was that made him one of the greatest inspirational heroes of our nation. King himself was inspired by Gandhi; he always advocated for non-violent action, and love over hate. He was a Christian minister who relied on faith and a moral conscience to guide him. Combining these characteristics with the fact that he was a well-educated and powerful speaker gave him the ability to lead and shape history.
King was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA, where he attended public primary school and high school. He was recognized for his exceptional intellect, and skipped both ninth and eleventh grades, entering Morehouse College at the age of 15. Like his father, he intended to become a minister. After attaining a sociology degree at Morehouse, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary, and then Boston University, earning three different college degrees.
Upon completing his education, he became a minister at a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His admiration for lawyer and renowned nonviolent social-activist Mahatma Gandhi took him India where he studied his work. He emulated Gandhi in his work against racism and segregation in the southern United States through non-violent protests.
“In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King never strayed from his spiritual foundation. Like his close friend and leading Jewish theologian of the time, a Polish-born American rabbi named Joshua Heschel, he believed that every part of society must be guided by ethics and morals determined by God. Far from the divisiveness we often see today, Dr. King sought to go beyond race, so that people would be judged by their character rather than their color.
Civil rights activism
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Nonviolent protest, in the form of civil disobedience, was King’s modus operandi. King became involved in the African American civil rights movement beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. This boycott was initiated on Dec. 5, with the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who refused to give her seat to a white passenger; and ended on Dec. 20. Ultimately the US Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott spurred the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, which Dr. King led, drawing on the support of black churches throughout the south to coordinate protest groups and activities.
In early 1963, the SCLC organized the Birmingham Campaign, which focused on combating the widespread segregation in the city. Students of all ages were trained in nonviolent protest and employed in a peaceful walk to City Hall. The Commissioner of Public Safety used high-pressure water hoses and attack dogs against them; and over one thousand protesters were arrested, including Martin Luther King Junior, who was held for eight days. The campaign brought worldwide attention to the issue of segregation in the south.
On Aug. 28 that same year, which also marked the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Dr. King was instrumental in inspiring an estimated 250,000 people to March on Washington, advocating for civil and economic rights for African Americans. On August 28, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for an end to racism.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year.
Martin Luther King Junior unflinchingly defended moral justice. He possessed great integrity and stood by his Christian belief that our laws should reflect God’s law and moral standards, as suggested by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
In his wisdom, King was not only a civil rights leader, but also a champion of traditional values. He strove to hold law to its foundational moral code, and inspired a national consciousness.
King was arrested 29 times for “crimes” defined by laws that he did not believe in, because they did not reflect God’s Law. According to St. Augustine, “An unjust law is no law at all,” and Dr. King felt no obligation to obey such laws.
When he was arrested in Birmingham, he wrote from the jail cell, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is out of harmony with the moral law,” signifying that he was unwilling to follow an immoral law that strayed from God’s will.
Martin Luther King was a gifted orator whose words continue to inspire today. He expressed timeless ideas that are widely applicable and moving. The following words of wisdom are all attributed to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
- “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
- “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.”
- “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
- “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
- “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.”
- “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
- “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
- “As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
Dr. King died on April 4,1968, after being shot on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, where he had just given a speech. His short life was dedicated to serving others and affecting positive change without violence or hatred.
In 1957 the nation’s oldest civil rights organization gave King its highest award, the NAACP Spingarn Medal for highest or noblest achievement by an African American in the preceding year or years.
In 1964 Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to end racial inequality at the age of 35, making him the youngest recipient of this prestigious award at the time.
The American Jewish Committee honored him in 1965 with their American Liberties Medallion, an award given “to men and not to movements. It signifies our awareness that every noble movement is an expression of nobility in certain individuals.”
President Jimmy Carter awarded King a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. This award recognizes those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
In 1994 he and his wife Coretta were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.”