Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The man who helped change the world

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King

In a large Victorian house, on a cold winter night in mid-January, a child was born to a black couple, Michael and Alberta King, in a segregated suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Little did they know then that their second-born, first son, was a dreamer, an orator, a philosopher and a leader of men.

Almost a century later the president of the US would sign a proclamation in honour of their child, designing his place of birth as a national park and his day of birth as an official Federal holiday.

Last week President Donald Trump spoke of the life of King and his dedication to civil rights for African Americans: “Today we mourn his loss, we celebrate his legacy and we pledge to fight for his dream of equality, freedom, justice and peace.” He encouraged Americans to observe the holiday with acts of civic service “in memory of Martin Luther King’s extraordinary life”. 

How do we define greatness? Among the many criteria, we should ask certain questions. How are we better off for a great man, or woman’s existence? Did he or she play any role in our lives? Has he, or she, lightened any burden, purified any taste, stirred any passion? Did they ease our pain? Change our world?

Martin Luther King did all this and more, emerging as one of the great men of our era.

The second of three children and first son, he was named Michael after his father, a Baptist minister. Michael Senior decided to change his name to Martin in honour of the German Protestant religious leader. In due time, Michael Jr followed his lead and adopted the name.

Young Martin was embraced by love of family, but troubled by his father’s struggle against racist prejudice, which he considered contrary to God’s will. However, he had little intention of joining any struggle or becoming a pastor as both his father and grandfather. He had dreams of studying medicine or law.

One day, a hard-working woman named Rosa Parks, climbed the bus after a long day’s work and sat in the front row of the “coloured” section to rest her weary bones. Soon the seats in the “white section” were filled and the bus driver demanded that “negroes” (the word was commonly used then) give up their seats. Several did, but Rosa Parks refused. She was arrested, booked, found guilty and fined. 

On that day a great man was born.

Martin’s dreams changed as he felt the urge to protest, but chose the road of non-violence, having read extensively about Mahatma Gandhi. He gave a speech to the black community about boycotting the bus company. An orator was born.

His voice moved his listeners who chose to walk for miles in non-violent protest, and he never stopped speaking since. His voice became an instrument of change and the content of his speeches moved the hearts and minds of friends and foes.

After a solid education at Morehouse College, under the guidance of Morehouse College President, Benjamin E Mays, an outspoken advocate for racial equality, left an indelible impression on him, he entered Crozier Theological Seminary and was elected president of a predominantly white senior class. Though he was accepted at Yale and Edinburgh universities, he chose to attend Boston University where he met and married Coretta Scott.

He received his doctorate in 1955. He was 25. 

After settling in Montgomery Alabama, he started a family and a vigorous non-violent struggle against racial discrimination. 

By then he had gained worldwide renown and the respect and admiration of world leaders, which gave him the power to enact major changes.

It was a long and painful journey for a “negro” boy, a young dreamer, born in segregated Georgia to Oslo, Norway, to receive his Nobel Prize in 1964 at age 35, the youngest Nobel Laureate then. He offered his prize money to support the civil rights movement. 

He travelled six million miles, wrote five books, numerous articles and gave 2,500 speeches. His speeches had a great impact on civil rights in America, changing the country and the world for the better. Perfection, however, is unattainable. The vision of a world in which race is not an issue is what we strive for. 

His famous march of 250,000 demonstrators to Washington DC where, at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he delivered his immortal speech: “I have a dream”, prompted president Lyndon Johnson to pass a law prohibiting all racial discrimination.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true means of its creed. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’” He quoted from the American constitution and it seemed they were hearing it for the first time.

Like Churchill before him, he mobilised the English language to stir his brethren in their struggle for freedom. His oratory, philosophy, ideas and ideals, so passionately expressed were the reason for his incomparable influence. 

He had been to the mountain top and he had seen the Promised Land: “I may not get there with you” were his prophetic words… but will we ever get there?

He was nominated Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 — which meant something then.

The world nominated him Man for All Seasons. 

It has been 50 years since his assassination by a former convict.

He was 39. 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) 

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