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Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, was born in Atlanta George in January 25, 1929. King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948 and received his divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951. He later enrolled in Boston University, where he met his wife, Corretta Scott, and where he received his doctorate. While completing his Ph.D requirements King accepted a position as pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott began and the Montgomery Improvement Association, which elected King as its president was formed. During the bus boycott, King gained national prominence for his oratorical skills and his courage. His leadership and nonviolent methods based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, made the bus boycott a success.

In 1957 King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which emphasized the voting rights for African Americans. King gained national attention for his civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama where he and fellow protestors were arrested and abused by police. The Birmingham protest led President Kennedy to submit civil rights legislation to Congress, which eventually passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mass demonstrations continued and culminated in the March on Washington, where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. In December of 1964 King became the youngest man to receive the Noble Peace Prize. On the evening of April 4, 1968, he was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee where he had led a protest for striking garbage workers.


The following is an excerpt from Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in April 16, 1963 in response to a published statement by white clergymen in which they urged the African American community in Montgomery to end demonstrations. King was arrested during nonviolent protests in Birmingham.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguised jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

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Excerpted from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson. Printed with permission from The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc. All rights reserved.
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