Today we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who played a significant role in ushering in a new era for America—one that has opened the doors to equal opportunity, not only for blacks in America, but for every other immigrant race, ethnicity and nationality that has come to our shores.
1. The Making of a Leader - Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929. He skipped 9th and 12th grade, entering Morehouse college when he was 15 years old. He received his B.A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, and then studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class.
After he was awarded a B.D. in 1951, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. During his activism, MLK, Jr. traveled more than six million miles and gave more than 2,500 speeches. He was the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35. More than 730 U.S. cities have a street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. If he were alive today, he would be 82 years old.
2. Opposition to The Vietnam War - By 1967, Dr. King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War and a staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967—a year to the day before he was murdered—King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi" and the Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
In his speech, he said:
It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit.
Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."
3. The Poor People’s Movement - The night before he was killed, Dr. King gave his last major address in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking sanitation workers as he built momentum for a Poor Peoples' March on Washington. King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended.
That’s the question before you tonight, not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That’s the question.
4. If He Had Sneezed (In Dr. King’s own words)
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said, "Yes." And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman.
I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the x-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood; that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheelchair in the hospital.
They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the president and the vice president. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said.
But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King, I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." And she said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
5. A National Holiday is Established - It took 15 years for Dr. King's birthday to become a national holiday and it wasn't easy. There was fierce opposition from several sources, not the least of which was Sen. Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, who accused King of being a communist.
There were also those who said that others deserved to have their birthdays honored more, that taxes would be intolerable, that having to pay federal employees whether they worked or not was going to be bad for taxpayers.
"Sen. Bob Dole pointed out to those critics, 'I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination'."
Four days after Dr. King was killed, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, of Michigan, submitted legislation for his birthday to be made into a holiday. In 1970, six million people signed a petition (it's believed to be the largest number ever to sign a petition) to have Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday celebrated as a holiday.
Their cause was aided by U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, of New York, who helped Conyers submit new legislation each session of Congress. On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law into being that made Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. On Jan. 20, 1986, we celebrated for the first time a national day of reverence to Dr. King.