Martin Luther King was a southern preacher who led a non-violent movement to bring civil rights to black Americans in the southern states of the USA. He came from a family line of preachers in Atlanta Georgia and attended a seminary in Pennsylvania. Here he discovered other teachings than his background which he described as fundamentalist. He read about philosophers and the social gospel which urged him not just to preach but to act. His main inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi with his commitment to non-violent action against the abuses of the British Empire.
The Civil War ended slavery in 1865. But the North compromised and allowed segregation in restaurants, toilets, parks and other places. Blacks were denied some jobs and were prevented from registering to vote by their white oppressors who still harboured racial bitterness.
Soon after entering his first job in Montgomery a situation arose on the buses. White passengers were given preferential treatment in the seating by law. Rosa Parks took a stand and sat in the wrong seat. When this blew up the ministers of Montgomery got together and organised a boycott of the buses. Walking to work and a car pool and strict non-violent opposition was the order of the day. King was elected leader without his persuasion. Perhaps his eloquence, intelligence and calm demeanour was recognised immediately by his colleagues in the movement they would continue in for 10 years.
There would be sit in’s in segregated areas, voting registration in Mississippi where the legal right to vote of black residents was prevented by racist district councils. There was peaceful marching in Birmingham, which had a violent, racist and segregationist hierarchy. Churches were bombed peaceful demonstrators were killed. Perpetrators were set free in biased courtrooms. And all the time the world watched on television. Victory followed victory as the movement targeted southern racism. In 1964 King, was to his surprise, given the Nobel Peace Prize. Global recognition was perhaps due to the methods used that were in such contrast to the oppressive regime in the south.
One of the most famous memories is the march on Washington. After the successful summer of 1963, a March uniting people from across the country in pursuit of freedom. A large crowd on a glorious summer day heard King speak on the steps of the Lincoln memorial a significant statement for freedom. He concluded his speech, choosing this most public moment to become extemporaneous, with the line
“and when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro Spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
In the last few years of his life he clashed with President Johnson of Vietnam and saw his work outside the south become entangled with violence in Los Angeles and Chicago. It also came out about his extra-marital affairs. His long-time friend and colleague, Ralph Abernethy, said how all the leaders did not agree with actions, but that Martin had a particular weakness in that area. Thrust in the limelight, not by his own choice, in his twenties he could feel the weight of responsibility and frequently felt anxiety. People not looked to him for leadership, but as a moral icon something very difficult for anyone especially that young. His entourage felt it necessary to hide his smoking even let alone his sex life. He was after all a man, and his assassination on April 4 1968 in Memphis, perhaps gave some protection to his legacy.
Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we’re free at last.