Martin Luther King Jr.—a very popular civil rights leader during the civil rights movement—is considered one of the most influential people during this time due to his method for achieving equality.
Martine Luther King, Jr is one of the most influential figures in our country’s history due to his courage to stand up in the face of adversity and hardship, and fight for what he believes in....
On August 28, 1963, delivering the culminating address at the greatest mass-protest demonstration in U.S. history, Martin Luther King, Jr., summoned all of his listeners to think anew about the heritage and promise of America. Speaking in the “symbolic shadow” of the most revered American of all, he ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to remind them of the centennial year of Emancipation.
Unlike some other giants in the tradition of black American protest, Martin Luther King, Jr., is not properly described as a self-made man. To the contrary, it might seem that King was destined from birth for eminence as a minister and activist.
He was born Michael King, Jr., on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, the first son of the Rev. Michael Luther King and Alberta Williams. (The name change to Martin occurred during King’s early boyhood, following that of his father. The elder King’s name evolved over a period of years from Michael to Michael Luther to Martin Luther. The finalized form emerged in the mid-1930s, likely inspired by a visit to Germany.)
Papers of MLK, Vol. 1, pp. 362–363. A slightly different account appears in Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), pp. 4–5.
There are numerous biographies of King. My account of King’s life relies on Carson, “Introduction” to Papers of MLK; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Random House, 1986); and Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).
Clayborne Carson, “Introduction,” The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992–), Vol. 1, note 98. Cited hereafter as Papers of MLK.
See, for example, ibid., pp. 3–7, and Drew Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 222–226.
Michael Eric Dyson, for instance, lauds King as the greatest American ever, especially by virtue of the relative radicalism of his last few years, which Dyson regards as a bold departure from King’s earlier civil rights vision. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free Press, 2000), pp. ix–x, 1–29, 78–100.
This was King’s frequent self-description; see, for example, his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), pp. 297–298.
With respect to his second-phase demands, however, one must wonder whether King, even as he attempted to dispel the disillusionment that marked the mid- to late 1960s, actually contributed to it by his suggestions that the far more complicated problem of repairing blacks’ socioeconomic disadvantages could be resolved with similar dispatch by a federal government determined to do so. Perhaps thinking of its propriety and effectiveness in phase one and certainly moved by his alarm at the outbreak of widespread rioting in those years, King in phase two applied the rhetoric of Now, of impatience for radical change, to a set of problems to which its application was ill-conceived and possibly harmful—problems whose resolution required not only wisely crafted public policy, but also an extended, patient, laborious effort at self-elevation by the erstwhile victims of injustice, who would have been better served by rhetoric designed to inspire and sustain such an effort.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great champion of great principles, laboring mightily and in the end sacrificing his life to advance the cause of equal rights for all. Among the generations succeeding him, he is almost universally revered, accorded a virtually unchallengeable authority as a source of wisdom in matters of race, equality, and rights. Amid such reverence, to achieve a clear-sighted, fair-minded judgment of King’s political thought is no easy task. For that same reason, however, to achieve such a judgment is for us a moral and civic imperative.
For many years people have celebrated a day known as “Martin Luther King Day” in honor of a man who stood up for his beliefs and stood up for his race (“Martin Luther King Jr.”).