Michael Luther King, Jr. was born on 15 January 1929 to Michael Luther King, a Baptist preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, and Alberta Williams King, a teacher. Ebenezer Baptist was almost a family church in which his maternal grand dad Alfred Daniel Williams , dad Martin Luther King, Sr. nee: Michael King, Sr.), mother Alberta Christine Williams, brother Alfred Daniel Williams King, and himself all served. Michal senior later changed his name and that of his son to Martin Luther King.
Doctor King joined the civil rights struggle in 1955 when he was pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Rosa Parks had caught a bus from work and sat down near the centre of the bus instead of in the rear, which was the designated area for “people of colour.” This resulted in her arrest, a bus boycott, and a Supreme Court decisions banning segregation in transportation. And it also resulted in publicity and national recognition for Martin Luther King. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King’s work for the next 14 years catalyzed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Housing Rights Act of 1968.
A national holiday to recognize his memory first started after his assassination on 4 April 1968, and was finally signed into law on 2 November 1983, during which President Reagan said, “Each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself” and Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), wife and supporter of Doctor King’s work, and an activist in her own right declared, “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.” By the year 2000, every state in the United States had adopted Martin Luther King Day as a legal holiday.
Both his work and the holiday were controversial, nevertheless, he had a profound influence on many people. But what influenced him?
He was born into a church-centred home in a middle class neighbourhood, in a family that emphasized the teachings of Jesus Christ framed by what some call the “social gospel” or emphasis on changing the social and economic status of disadvantaged persons. Dr. King has said, “Even though I have never had an abrupt conversion experience, religion has been real to me and closely knitted to life. In fact the two cannot be separated; religion for me is life.” (Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute , Stanford University).
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German priest noted differences between the Holy Bible and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. His work led in part to both the Protestant Reformation and by result, the Catholic Reformation as well. During a tour to the Middle East and Europe in the 1930’s The senior Michael King became acquainted with his teachings. He eventually changed his name to Martin Luther King Sr., and his son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr.
As young Martin maintained his collegiate studies, he became familiar with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who employed non-violent civil disobedience such as marches, sit-ins, and other techniques. King used many of his teachings and tactics to contrast his cause with the water hoses, police dogs, lynching, and other measures to keep people from seeking change.
This day is an opportunity to reflect not just on the celebrations, but in reflection of how the influences that moved Martin Luther King, Jr. in turn guide us as well, and to remember Mrs. King’s exhortation that the holiday is a people’s holiday, and that his dream is his four children “…will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. …”