Indians never tire of referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) as a leader who had adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of civil resistance to the civil rights movement in the United States. Indeed Dr. King was so ardent an admirer of Gandhi that in 1959 he visited India, saying: “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”
One of King’s most memorable experiences was residing at Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s Bombay residence. He noted in the guestbook: “To have the opportunity of sleeping in the house where Gandhiji slept is really an experience I will never forget.” And as we honor Gandhi as the Father of our Nation, we revere Dr. King as “the Gandhi of America.”
Addressing an audience in Bombay, he expressed his impatience with people who are being adjusted to their environment, while the country needed action against “the suffering, the exploitation, the injustice, and the degradation of human beings.” On another occasion, he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And “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.”
Today, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr as he was the most exceptional leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, who changed the course of history.
Dr. King was born Michael King Jr on January 15, 1929. His father was a pastor who was inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther, which made him change his son’s name to Martin Luther.
One of Dr. King’s first efforts in the Civil Rights Movement was the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
On the evening of December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old black lady named Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in Atlanta and sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the bus. Eventually, all the seats in the white section filled up, and several white passengers had no seat.
The bus driver demanded that Parks and other African Americans give up their seats. While three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, Parks refused to leave her seat. Even after the driver asked her repeatedly, Parks remained seated. The cops were called, and Parks was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. Later at the trial, she was found guilty and fined.
Dr. King and other civil rights leaders who knew about this planned the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The backlash of the boycott was harsh: There was terrible harassment, violence, and intimidation for the African American community. The homes of Dr. King and other leaders were attacked. Finally, after weeks of continued struggle, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.
Of all the struggles organized by Dr. King, the most important was the historic March in August 1963 on Washington, in which more than 200,000 people took part. And it was here in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial that he made his “I Have a Dream” speech, emphasizing that someday all men could be brothers:
“I have a dream that my four 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.”
This historic event ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
The struggles continued, and in 1965 President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On April 4, 1968, a sniper’s bullet ended the eventful life of Dr. Martin Luther King while he was standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis. The shooter, a malcontent racist, was eventually apprehended and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Dr. King will remain the greatest of the African American leaders for a long time to come, as a visionary leader who was deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.
Prof. P.P. Shahul Hameed