Monday commemorates the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a revered civil rights hero whose activism and oratory skills were crucial in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. King would have been 88 years old today.
Here are 10 things you need to know King.
1. King became a pastor, just like his father, Martin Luther King Sr. King attended Morehouse College at the age of 15 to study medicine and law, but decided to go the pastor route under the tutelage of Dr. Benjamin Mays, the president of the university. After earning his doctorate at Boston University, King eventually became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL.
2. King’s activism was largely based on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. King was first introduced to Gandhi’s work of nonviolent resistance to evil government policies by Mays. King was eventually invited to India by the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, and declared on All India Radio: “If this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that [Gandhi] so nobly illustrated in his life.” When he returned to America, King vowed “to achieve freedom for my people through nonviolent means.”
3. King was chosen to lead the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott was organized after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on the bus for a white person; the boycott lasted for 381 days. The boycott caused “a severe economic strain on the public transit system and downtown business owners,” according to History.com. Gandhi’s teachings were “the guiding light” of the protest, according to King. The boycott also propelled King into the public eye for his leadership in the protest.
4. King was arrested in 1963 for protesting against segregation. King had led protests that included sit-ins, boycotts and marches on City Hall in Birmingham, AL, and continued to lead them even after the protests were legally blocked by an injunction from an Alabama court. King was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for eight days, which led to his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, where King eloquently articulated the case for civil disobedience against immoral laws. King was eventually released on bail money after his wife called the Kennedy administration for help.
5. King was a key figure in organizing the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, the place of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Over 200,000 Americans attended the rally that day that called for equal rights for people of color, best encapsulated by King’s speech that is forever known as one of the most influential speeches in American history:
The march eventually led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
6. After the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, King focused on protesting the Vietnam War and ending poverty. Some in the black community favored more violent means of protest after the violence of Selma, AL, prompting King to pivot toward activism on other issues. King became an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, stating: “The war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home…We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
King also called for a dramatic overhaul from the free market system that generates economic growth in America, as he believed in a system of democratic socialism that would have expanded the size of government much further than President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.
7. King was assassinated in April 1968 at the age of 39. King was on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, TN, where he was planning to support a strike organized by sanitation workers, when James Earl Ray murdered him with a rifle. Ray initially confessed to the murder of King, but then bizarrely claimed that he was being set up. Oddly enough, Ray was supported by some of King’s family members, but subsequent investigations all came to the same conclusion that Ray murdered King, and he remained in prison for the rest of his life. Ray held racist, segregationist views and a history of being a “small-time criminal” prior to murdering King. He died of kidney failure in 1998.
8. It is not known what King’s party affiliation was, but there is evidence that he was a Republican. There is no way to know for sure, as Georgia, King’s home state, did not register voters by parties. King also never publicly endorsed candidates. However, according to Newsmax, New York Times political reporter Tom Wicker wrote in 1960 that “Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had volunteered to lead a voter registration drive among blacks, which King thought would produce many new Republican voters” and that King preferred Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. However, King became more closely aligned with Democrats after Kennedy helped release King from jail after violating probation, while Nixon didn’t feel comfortable with pressuring the judge to change the ruling, and King certainly was an ally of Johnson when he agreed to sign civil rights legislation. As mentioned above, King certainly did support left-wing causes after the passage of civil rights legislation.
Here is a video of King defending the Republican Party:
9. King was a social conservative. Dr. Alveda King, King’s niece, told CNN that her uncle “was a believer in traditional values who went on record criticizing homosexuality, defending the traditional family and opposing abortion.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher and a liberator,” King said. “It’s natural for what’s called conservative values to align with who he was because he was a pastor. He was not so much a fiscal conservative, but more so a moral conservative.”
Peter Myers writes at The Federalist:
His socialist sympathies and radical zeal notwithstanding, King held a variety of positions that, though reflecting the common sense of his day, would align him generally with today’s social conservatism. He maintained that to achieve its proper ends, militancy must conjoin with moderation. He insisted on careful empirical study and negotiation as preconditions of protest. He maintained that the disadvantaged must “work on two fronts” by directing their energies toward self-improvement as well as protest.
He taught that with a new era of rights come new responsibilities: “We must prepare ourselves in every field of human endeavor,” and “we must constantly stimulate our youth … to achieve excellence.” He affirmed that “the family constitutes the basic unit of the nation” and decried (in 1955!) “the tragic disintegration of the modern family.” He criticized the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare program for its family-dissolving effects.
Finally, above all such political considerations, he implored us to love and forgive, and to begin that effort with the recognition, born of charity and realism, that “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
It’s only fitting then that the day commemorating King is the same day that honors religious freedom.
10. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day officially became a holiday in 1983. The push for a holiday honoring King began shortly after his assassination, but the movement gained more popularity in 1979 through Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday.” President Ronald Reagan initially opposed the idea when he took office because it “would open the door to many other groups seeking similar holidays” and instead wanted a day of recognition for King, but Reagan did eventually sign into law legislation that created the holiday. Here is an excerpt from Reagan’s elegant speech when the holiday was signed into law:
“In America, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, one of the important crises we faced was racial discrimination,” Reagan said. “The man whose words and deeds in that crisis stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Reagan added that King “awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, ‘Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.’”
The full speech can be seen below: