Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Yes, we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every third Monday in January, we honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we celebrate his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement, we are reminded of his vision for a global brotherhood, achieved without violence.
Dr. King’s mission to peaceably overcome social injustice was woven through his roles as a pastor and activist and is reflected in his greatest achievements, some of which include:
Dr. King led the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which ended after the US Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional.
Dr. King emerged as a leader of the burgeoning civil rights movement in 1957 when he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Mass nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, known then as the “most segregated city in America” were led by Dr. King in 1963. Following a brutal response by local white police, Dr. King was arrested and penned his famous, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an open letter defending his strategy for nonviolent resistance.
Later in 1963, he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech in front of over a quarter-million people assembled at the National Mall in Washington, DC. This speech cemented Dr. King’s place in history and prompted Congress to later pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin and thus ending racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and in public accommodations.
At the age of 35, Dr. King became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His powerful acceptance speech includes the oft-quoted phrase, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
In 1965, he led the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama March for Voting Rights, resulting in the Voting Rights Act being passed by Congress, eliminating the remaining barriers to voting for African-Americans.
On Human Rights Day 1965 in New York City, he delivered his famous “Let My People Go” speech. Addressing the apartheid regime of South Africa, Dr. King said:
The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world, it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength and because this is true when men of good will finally unite they will be invincible.
The broad struggle against injustice is something Dr. King fully understood. As he addressed the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, Dr. King said, “The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world.”
Likewise, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” echoes the notion of this transcendent struggle:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Dr. King’s life of nonviolence ended abruptly with his assassination on April 4, 1968. However, death did not silence his voice. Change-makers striving to bind the ties of freedom, justice, and equality for the oppressed continue to be inspired by Dr. King’s legendary words:
…[A]nd when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!