In honor the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, today’s #historyfriday article is a repost of a feature I wrote a few years back. It’s worth sharing again, as we honor the life and legacy of this important Civil Rights activist:
“I have a dream.”
Perhaps one of the most famous lines in all of American history. On August 28, 1963, a mere 5 years before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered these words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, painting a picture of an integrated and unified America.
But where did this dream come from?
Dr. King’s father, Michael King Sr., came from a poor sharecropping family in rural Georgia. He married Alberta Williams in 1926 and moved with her to her father’s home in Atlanta. Alberta’s father, known as A.D., had been a rural minster for years before moving to Atlanta to take over the struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church. By the time King Sr. and his bride arrived, the church had grown in size and influence, and King Sr. stepped in to a supporting role, eventually taking over as lead minister upon A.D.’s death in 1931.
Michael King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, the namesake to his father, and the middle of three children, including a sister, Christine, and younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. It wasn’t until a family trip to Germany in 1934 that the elder Michael, inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, changed his name to Martin Luther, as well as the name of his then-five year-old son.
The King children grew up in a stable and financially secure home. All three children took piano lessons from their mother and played sports. As a minister, King Sr. saw to his children’s religious upbringing, though King Jr. struggled with the concept of religion as a child. He had doubts and questions, generally feeling uncomfortable with the entire charade of worship and prayer imposed upon him by his father. It was accepted that, when he came of age, King Jr. would follow his father’s footsteps into ministry.
Accepted by everyone, that is, except King Jr. himself.
While this inner struggle shadowed his childhood, it wasn’t to say his younger days were bleak. Far from it, in fact. His parents were loving, he was intellectually gifted, and his education was far better than that received by the average child of his race. As a young child, he was unaware that simply having a different colored skin was an issue, and his parents did all they could to shield him from this fact of life in mid-20th century America.
But they couldn’t hide it forever.
King Jr.’s first significant foray into this unexpected aspect of life came when he started school. White playmates in his neighborhood, with whom he’d enjoyed countless afternoons of frivolity, were sent a different elementary school than the one he attended. Wanting to attend school with his friends, King was shocked to learn not only that he couldn’t, but that it was against the law. Jim Crow, his mother explained. And, although he accepted the what, even as a child he struggled with the why.
Another instance occurred during a simple outing to downtown Atlanta to buy a pair of shoes. He and his father were seated at the front of the store, awaiting help from the sales clerk. Tight smile on his face, the clerk–who was white–informed them he would be happy to help them…if only they would move to the back of the store.
It took a few minutes for the truth to sink into young King Jr.’s mind. It was because of the color of their skin. They were being forced to move simply because of the color of their skin.
It was a shame and righteous anger King Jr. would never forget. But what stuck with him even more was his father’s response to the injustice. The elder King didn’t shout. He didn’t scream. He didn’t resort to physical violence.
But he didn’t just sit there and take it, either.
“We’ll either buy shoes sitting here or not at all.”
When the clerk still refused service, King Sr. simply took his son’s hand and left the store.
It was a life-changing moment for King Jr. He could no longer ignore the truth of the world. His eyes had been opened to the injustice of Jim Crow, to the plight of those like himself…and to the courage of his father. The elder King preached against Jim Crow, not just because of its effects on those of his race, but because he saw it as an affront to God’s will. But he didn’t just preach. He was active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and led a successful campaign to equalize the salaries of black and white teachers in Atlanta.
A gifted student, King Jr. graduated from high school early and enrolled in Morehouse College at age 15. Still unsure about his path in life but desperate to make a difference, King found guidance in Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, who watered and cultivated the seeds King Jr.’s father had planted all through his young life. Through him, King Jr. began to understand the role Christianity could play in enacting social change–reshaping hearts would go much further than bruising bodies or burning buildings, a radical departure from the style of the Civil Rights movement thus far. Finally discovering the faith his father had tried to instill in him many years ago, King Jr. became an ordained minister before graduating with a degree in sociology in 1948.
After Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, King Jr. got his chance to put this new idea into practice. In place of violence, he urged, instead, a boycott–a boycott that ended up lasting 382, during which thousands of African-Americans were forced to walk to and from work in each day and in which King Jr. was harassed and his house attacked–but that ultimately ended up in legislation that lifted the law mandating segregation on public transportation.
Peaceful defiance had worked. And it had created snowball effect across the South that eventually led to the nation’s capital where King Jr. shared with the masses his dream for a better America.
A dream that began all those years ago in a shoe shop in downtown Atlanta, planted by a poor sharecropper turned minister who refused to believe man’s law could triumph over God’s.