Martin Luther King jun.
and the Civil Rights Movement



Martin Luther King (in the following text abbreviated as MLK) is also called the apostle of
nonviolence. King's friend the singer Harry Belafonte described the unique personality of MLK
with the following words:
"God sometimes creates individuals who regardless of themselves are righteous in all their deeds,
even if it will engulf them in the end. We can be thankful that such a person has touched our lives,
even if it has been only for such a short period of time".

MLK was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. In the southern States of the USA, in the middle of the 50´s and 90 years after the end of slavery, segregation was still predominant. President Abraham Lincoln officially abolished slavery in 1863. It is believed that most of the African slaves were brought to USA during a time span of about 240 years (the first slaves came in 1619) and to the Americas over a time span of 380 years, (first slaves in the Caribbean ever since 1505, and in Brazil about 1530), mostly from the island of Gorée which is situated off the coast of Senegal, West Africa and Cape Coast, Ghana. About 50 Million African people survived the journey to the USA but it is estimated that about 50 Million people also lost their lives during the harsh journey (passage 6-8 weeks) across the ocean on the slave vessels (= cargo ships).

The slaves were sold on slave markets, were in the possession of the slave holders and were documented as such in their business transactions. Most African Americans don't know even today, the names of their ancestors in Africa and from what part of the continent they came from. They were not recognised as full human beings, were uprooted. Until this day Africa still suffers from the effects of enslaving and displacing millions of its people over the centuries. The owners took away the Natives cultural and religious identity and even their names. They had the name of their owner and a first name given by him. They had to work for 14 hours daily, sometimes even longer without payment on the plantations where cotton, tobacco or sugar cane was grown, and had to do the heaviest labour. They were under the arbitrary rule of their owners. 
Plans to escape from such inhuman conditions can easily be understood. But revolts and efforts to escape by individuals were usually unsuccessful. They resulted in  heaviest punishment. The network of the abolitionists worked well and brought many slaves by secret routes to Canada (there the slave trade had been forbidden since 1793 and by 1800 all slaves were free) or at least to the Northern States of USA. This was the so-called Underground Railroad. One of the fugitive slaves was Josiah Henson who came with his family to Canada in 1830, and became a preacher out of gratitude. Henson was the inspiration for Harriet Beecher-Stowe's 'Uncle Tom' of her world-famous book 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'.
The slaves transmitted their secret messages having to do with escape while working, by means of coded texts, the spirituals (e.g.: North Star, Promised Land, Sweet Canaan = Canada; Jordan = Ohio, beyond was no slavery; Moses = Harriet Tubman; Sweet Chariot = Heaven's wagon; wade in the water = walk through the water because so dogs have no track; station, conductor = helper; passenger = someone trying to escape through the Underground Railroad) The helpers had a candles in the window for orientation. This was all very dangerous for the fugitives as well as for the helpers. At this point it is worth mentioning Harriet Tubman (who was herself a former fugitive slave) and who risking her own life, helped many people to freedom and came back to help people to escape 19 times. By way of the  Underground Railroad approximately  30.000 - 50.000 fugitive slaves came to Canada between 1800 -1860.
>>Annotation: Spirituals -labour songs- are coded secret messages of the slaves, Gospels (God spells) are comparable to our hymns in church.<<   

Segregation means the enforced separation of different racial groups in a country. In the USA this meant that the white and black population had separate churches, separate schools and universities, and divided housing areas.
In restaurants and waiting rooms there were separate seating arrangements; in movie theatres there was the so-called "peanut gallery" where the upper seats, occupied by black viewers often had no emergency exit, which could end deadly for them in case of a fire, because they would not have been able to reach the lower exits. Even toilets and wash basins, park benches, bus seats (the front part of the bus was reserved for the white and the back part for the black population), trains, drinking fountains, libraries, super markets, hospitals, and sidewalks were segregated. Changing rooms in stores as well as swimming pools and elevators could only be used by whites. Intermarriage between black and white Americans was forbidden. These are only a few examples of the daily forms of racial segregation.  

Since their childhood black children including MLK, felt and experienced the  unequal school system which was made "by whites for whites", and in which Afro -Americans and their culture played no role whatsoever, and where the schools for black children were not as well-equipped as the schools for white children.

MLK's family belonged to the black middle class, which was rare enough at that time because the majority of the black population suffered under extreme poverty. Martin was an intelligent young man and attended  Morehouse College in Atlanta until 1944, at this time the only college for black students  in the south. After that he studied theology at the Crozer Theological  Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, in the north of the USA (1948-51). Later he wrote his promotion at  Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, and finished in spring 1955.

MLK was a Baptist preacher at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, another southern State. His father and his grandfather had also been Baptist preachers at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where MLK had also preached. In 1953 he married Coretta Scott and they had four children (*1955, 1957, 1962, 1963).

On Dec. 1, 1955 an incident occurred in the city of Montgomery which was to have a major impact in changing the social situation in the southern States. Rosa Parks a seamstress on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white person. Rosa Parks was not only tired from work, but also tired of being treated like a second class citizen. She was turned over to the police. Within no time the news of this incident is spread throughout the black community. As a result, 5000 people came together in Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, in order to organize a bus boycott. MLK is unanimously chosen to be the spokesman of the group. King was able to put into words what the people had suffered so long, but were not able to articulate. He repeatedly states that it is only possible to change these unjust laws through the use of non-violent direct action, such as marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. Great men who used non-violence to reach their goals were Jesus and Gandhi. They were his best examples.

No one knew what the result of the bus boycott would be like and if the black population would support this action. The next day 99,9% of the people walked! Many of them had a long way to go to work and back home again, so that taxis were organized which offered their services for the price of the bus fare. The people had come to a point where they could no longer accept being suppressed by the white population. The bus boycott lasted for one whole year, and resulted in the end of segregation in Montgomery. MLK united the people in their common effort towards unity and non-violence. Rosa Parks was fined $14  which is the equivalent of app. 30 Euro today, and a relatively heavy fine for a seamstress. In spite of the bombing of his home, the pastorium of the church, MLK continued to preach the gospel of love for all mankind. His deep spirituality gave him the strength to continue, and he knew that God would be with him even in the most difficult moments.

One incident which had a deep impact on MLK and which later became known as the "kitchen incident", occurred at the time of the boycott. After having received a bomb threat over the phone, King's strength was at an end. In his despair he sat down and prayed: "God you know that I am fighting for a just cause. But I have reached a point where I cannot continue on alone. I am afraid". This was more than understandable in view of the fact that he also had his family to protect.
As he prayed to God, he heard an inner voice saying: "Stand up for righteousness and truth and God will always be at your side!"

This incident gave him the strength and courage  to continue - not only during the time of the bus boycott, but also for all of the other tasks which still lay ahead of him. He knew that the path of non-violence was the only way in which injustice could be resolved, and he was so steadfast in his belief that he was able to state in one of his speeches: "You can kill us and destroy our homes, but we will still love you". He was able to say these words even though his own life had just been endangered by a mentally retarded woman of his own race.

Afro- Americans had finally found their own identity. They no longer allowed themselves to be called "boy", no matter how old they were, and they freed themselves of the hated name of "Jim Crow". The crows who pick the freshly sown seeds from the fields, were used as a synonym for black people who were viewed as parasites living off of the white population. The name "Jim Crow" dehumanized Afro- Americans.

It is understandable that these changes demanded their tribute. From 1955 until 1968 MLK was in jail no less than 30 times. Often for only minor reasons such as apparently driving a bit faster than the speed limit permitted (something which could not really be proven), or for the fact that he had forgotten to renew his drivers licence.
At the beginning of the 60´s, the protest song "We shall overcome" was written. 

In the city of Birmingham, Alabama, people demonstrated with MLK against racial segregation. Birmingham was strongly racial and was more or less "controlled" by its´ police chief Theophil Eugene Connor, nicknamed "Bull" because of his bull-like stature. Connor viewed Birmingham as his city! It was under his control! King was imprisoned in April 1963 with approximately 500 other people including children and teenagers on account of leading a demonstration and for violating Federal laws. The civil rights leaders wanted to fill the prisons up to the brim with their members, so that the prison administration would collapse.

King was not only detained in prison, but was also forbidden to have any outside contact whatsoever. It was President John F. Kennedy who intervened and made contact possible. King and his supporters were attacked by white American pastors from Birmingham in an open letter in the local newspaper for mingling in the inner issues of the city, which he as a newcomer to the city could not possibly understand. King retaliated and also answered in an open letter that the demonstrators are not to blame, but the circumstances leading to the demonstrations, in this case the injustice that the black Americans have had to endure. He describes himself as an "Extremist of love". This letter was written in the prison of Birmingham, on the white rim of a newspaper, because he had no other paper to write on.
King and his supporters were released from prison and police chief "Bull" Connor was suspended from his job. People like "Bull " Connor in his position as chief of police in Birmingham  and Governor George Wallace were afraid of the changes that would take place with  the end of segregation.

It was agreed upon that there should be better education, job training, and better work conditions for Afro-Americans and that there be an end to segregation. But the hatred in the minds of many white Southerners was so strong that people were attacked, injured and even killed. Homes and churches were set on fire.  On September 1963, a bomb explosion instigated by the Ku-Klux-Klan killed four black girls aged 11 and 14 years, while attending Sunday school in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.                                   
In the spring of 1964, 3 civil rights workers (2 white Americans and 1 Afro -American) were murdered in the neighbouring state of Mississippi. The so -called  "Freedomriders", had an important influence on having the racial laws changed, in a non-violent manner. The "Freedomriders" were mostly young people who drove through all of the southern States and purposely stayed in segregated areas, speaking to the white population, and getting them to rethink their totally non-Christian behaviour. "If we don't fight for our rights who will?"

People felt that the time had come, for carrying out a mass demonstration against racism. On August 28, 1963, the March on Washington took place.  250.000 demonstrators came from all parts of the United States to demonstrate peacefully for freedom, equality, and solidarity with the Afro-American people. Many people of good will came together: Afro-Americans, white Americans, workers, educated people, renowned citizens, Christians and non-Christians were all sharing the same ideal of equal rights for all people, be they Black, White, or of any other race. They had all come together to be close to their "idol" MLK.  King held his famous speech "I have a Dream", in which he spoke of the day when people would not be judged by their appearance, but by their character, and that the vision of a better tomorrow, would give everyone the strength and courage to work, pray, fight and stand up for freedom together, and to even go to prison for that belief.  

After the March on Washington Hoover, head of FBI (highest police authority) started constant observation of MLK. Kings´ mail was opened and read, his telephone at home and in his hotel room was "bugged", even under the church pulpits, "bugs" were installed. Hoover must have had numerous helpers. He tries to force King into a "subversive" corner accusing him of alleged sexual offences, homosexual tendencies, communist activities, and endangering the country. All of these accusations were directed against King as the head of the civil rights movement,
in order to "break" him. Hoovers false accusations, slander and hatred could not touch King - he was not a person one could black mail. King was different from the people that Hoover had been used to dealing with, which included presidents and ministers. The fact that it had been possible to black mail so many of the countries highest representatives, made Hoover one of the most powerful men in the country for almost 50 years. But not at KING!
King staunchly continues his non-violent path, and on December 1964 he is presented with the Nobel Peace Prize. King views this as an incentive to continue with his work, since there was still much to be done. Even the Civil Rights Act of July 1964 signed by President Johnson which prohibits racial discrimination in all areas of USA did not change the segregation.
Hoover was critical of the fact that MLK received the Nobel Peace Prize, because he himself would have liked to have received this honour! (But for what? - for 40 years of undetected spying?)

In the small city of Selma near Montgomery, Alabama the black population had to register their names in the voting lists. Whoever was not registered could not vote. All sorts of humiliating attempts were made in order to prevent black people from registering. People were forced to answer difficult questions about American history as a prerequisite for being able to register. Questions such as: "How many additional articles does the American Constitution have?" or ridiculous questions such as: " How many bubbles can one get out of a piece of soap?" were asked.  The white voters were not confronted with such demeaning behaviour. In March 1965, after 3 marches from Selma to Montgomery (approx.50 km) had taken place, the Afro-American population was finally able to register and had the right to vote. A priest received such severe head injuries by the police during the second march that he died shortly after, as a result. A young man and a woman, mother of 5 children, were shot before the beginning resp. after the end of the demonstrations by adversaries of the Civil Rights Movement.
The police used dogs and water hoses against the demonstrators, so that many people were injured. Through the strong pressure of the water childrens´ feet were swept away from under them, or people were hurled to the other side of the street.

In July 1966 a protest march took place in Chicago. The purpose was to improve the poor living and  housing conditions of the Afro-American population. In the northern States the conditions were different in comparison to those in the southern States. Here the Afro-Americans lived mostly in ghetto-like housing areas where the rents were lower in comparison to other housing areas. This was the case in almost all of the other large cities in the North, and in combination with unemployment, poverty and crime, created a highly explosive social atmosphere which made it difficult for Kings´ non-violent movement to become active. These areas were controlled by the Black-Panther-Movement or the Black Muslims with their leader Malcolm X (killed in 1965) which also worked towards improving the situation for Afro-Americans, but at the same time was not afraid to use force in order reach their goal. This did not agree with MLK´s principles. He was against violence in any form. In order to obtain equal housing rights for all, agreements were signed, but things remained as they were. Most home owners rented the better homes only to white Americans. Even if these agreements for improvement were not implemented, King knew that it was more important to express the common goal of  unity and non-violence than to actually achieve the final end result.

The situation was similar at the demonstration against the war in Vietnam in New York in April 1967. Many young Afro-Americans were fighting side by side with white Americans, but at the same time they were not allowed to enter a public building together or even be buried in the same cemetery, in their own country. In the Riverside Church in New York King strongly criticized the war in Vietnam, which made him in Hoover´ s eyes an even greater national security risk. King reprimanded the USA for "distributing medicine in the world against an illness which she herself suffered from." By this he meant that the USA was criticizing other countries for their unjust and undemocratic behaviour, but was doing the same herself.

The Civil Rights Movement led by King would organize a "Poor People's Campaign" in 1968 which would have its top that the poorest people of the USA come to Washington D.C. to demonstrate for their rights. They would stay so long there till the government make an adequate law for better life conditions.
In March 1968, a strike was organized by the garbage men (= sanitary workers) in Memphis, Tennessee. They were the lowest paid workers and often did not even earn enough to feed their families. They also wanted to live as dignified human beings, and that is why this "March of the Poor" was organized under the motto        "I am a man". This demonstration was the first to be overshadowed by riots (today we know that the FBI secretly brought in Black-Panther-Activists, to start the riots). MLK speaks to the Black-Power-Group, trying to convince them of the importance of non-violence. King has a strong sense of responsibility for all people - for the garbage workers (= sanitary workers), as well as for the Black-Panther-Activists, and in spite of the fact that they nickname him "Uncle Tom" (which describes someone who is not aggressive but tries to achieve his aim the "soft way", the opposite of how Black-Power was dealing with problems).

On the evening of April 3, 1968, King spoke to the organizers of the "Poor People ´s Campaign" which was in the process of being planned. During the last few days, King had received several threatening telephone calls, telling him to leave the city if he wanted to protect his life. The strain was audible in his speech; he not only spoke about the basic rights for all human beings, but also that he stands on the top of the mountain and similar to Moses he sees the Promised Land which his people will someday enter, even if he will not be there to accompany them. This speech proved prophetic, in view of the tragic occurrences of the following day.

On the evening of April 4,1968, after plans for the next demonstration had been made, MLK was shot and killed on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis.
Riots broke out in many cities, signalizing the grief, hopelessness and despair that the people were feeling. Coretta King admonishes the people to remain calm and to restrain from the use of violence, since it would deeply hurt her husband if his supporters would give up their path of non-violence at this point.

The funeral of MLK turned out to be a demonstration for pacifism. A tape recording with Kings´ Testament was played at the funeral. In it he states that he wants his life to be a service to mankind.
On April 9, 1968 50.000 people paved the way to the cemetery in Atlanta, the city in which he was born. MLK is laid to rest in a churchyard formerly used as a burial place for slaves.

After King's death the planned demonstration did not take place. Coretta King and some of Kings sympathisers, would not have been able to lead the non-violent movement like MLK had been able to do. 

Today, in front of the hotel, where King was shot, there is a memorial stone with the inscription  which reflects the significance of this location. "Let us slay this dreamer, then we will see what will become of his dreams". (1. Moses 37,20 >Story of Joseph< Genesis, 37:20 - Let us slay him and we shall see what will become of his dreams.)
On the memorial stone of his grave are engraved the words of an old spiritual: "Free at last, free at last".

P.S. James Earl Ray was convicted in 1969 of the murder of MLK and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Ray died on April 23, 1998 in the prison hospital of Nashville, Tennessee. Ray claimed to be innocent, and during the last years there was increasing doubt if he was really the main person responsible. There was increasing proof of a conspiracy involving the FBI, CIA (Secret Service), local and national political circles, army and mafia. Hoover, head of the FBI, was determined to put an end to the black non-violent civil rights movement. It is hard to believe that Hoover, who had been keeping King under constant vigilance for years, should not have been aware of what was being planned on the 4.4.68 -the day of Kings´ death. The case Ray-King" was not reopened during Rays´ lifetime. But Kings´ family will try to obtain a revision of the case. Dexter King, the youngest son of MLK, spoke to Ray, shortly before his death and was convinced that he was innocent.

In 1999 a court in Memphis confirmed that MLK was the victim of a conspiracy and not the victim of one individual.
Accused of the actual murder was Loyd Jowers. Because of his age and illness, the King family did not demand a new trial against Jowers.  He was fined 100 Dollar, a symbolic sum to be paid to the sanitation company of Memphis. 
The King family wanted to reveal the truth, but not revenge themselves on the true murderer. For a new case all evidence would have to be put forward again. All of the files regarding the case are being held back until the year 2029. By that time, those responsible will no longer be alive.

Since 1986, the 3rd Monday in January is an official national holiday in the USA, called Martin-Luther-King-Day.

Written by Annemarie Diefenbach, translated by Iris Körper-Hinz.





G.J.Bos: Martin Luther King
A. Zitelmann: Keiner dreht mich um - Die Lebensgeschichte des Martin Luther King
A. Summers: J.E. Hoover - Der Pate im FBI
Martin Luther King: Ich habe einen Traum
G. Presler: Martin Luther King
R. Italiaander: Köpfe des 20. Jahrhunderts - Martin Luther King
W.F. Pepper: In der Schusslinie - Die wahren Hintergründe der Ermordung von Martin Luther King
W.F. Pepper: Die Hinrichtung des Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King: Kraft zum Lieben
J.H. Cone: Für mein Volk - Schwarze Theologie und schwarze Kirche
Uwe Hoering: Zum Beispiel - Sklaverei
Der Sklavenhandel, Bilder und Dokumente

Martin Luther King - Dann war mein Leben nicht umsonst ... (Original with German subscribes)
Martin Luther King - Dann war mein Leben nicht umsonst ? (Original with translation)
Wer erschoß Martin Luther King?
Tod in Memphis
Vier kleine Mädchen
Freedom on my mind


The King Center

The M.L. King Jr Papers Projekt

Martin Luther King Zentrum

Email Made on 22.03.2004, Version from 2.11.2017, Copyright Annemarie Diefenbach , GNU-FDL