On this day in 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born to a Baptist minister and his church organist wife in Atlanta, GA. Becoming a Baptist minister himself, King swiftly evolved into a strikingly effective activist and the most visible spokesperson and leader of the American civil rights movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott begun by Rosa Parks and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, King led a massive series of boycotts, protests and non-violent demonstrations, inspiring young and old in the like-minded necessity for racial equality and social justice in the US. He was a principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, seen by many as the most stirring oratory in English language history.
In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance, and continued his campaign for peace and justice, traveling throughout the US; despite his peaceful approach, he was jailed not less than 29 times. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition toward poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam.”
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, DC, to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, TN. King’s death was followed by riots in many US cities, and two months later, Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, a King supporter, was also murdered. Many historians and observers hold the very absence of these men and the perceived lawlessness in the US at the time helped ensure the victory of Richard Nixon that November.
Eminently quotable, the most searing and profound words of King still ring true at a time when to many our nation appears rudderless and without moral bearing: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”