Racial segregation became a way of life in most southern states after Reconstruction ended in 1877. During Reconstruction, the U.S. attempted to “reconstruct” the Confederacy that had just lost the Civil War. Larry Schweikart writes in A Patriot’s History of the United States that in Reconstruction (1867-1877), the U.S. attempted to readmit members of the Confederacy, rebuild the South, and help the freed men and women to live and work in a hostile environment. When Reconstruction ended, the northern soldiers went home, and the southern whites enacted laws that separated whites from non-whites. In practice, segregation greatly limited black Americans’ ability to work, kept black Americans from voting, and created a permanent underclass where blacks did not enjoy the protection of the U.S. law. Economic and social mobility was nearly impossible for black Americans, and in many southern states, black Americans were in constant physical danger. They were terrorized, brutalized, and murdered in astonishing numbers. The Supreme Court, in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) legalized racial segregation. Segregation was the legal policy of separating the races, but it also meant that black Americans would always constitute a permanent underclass.
Childhood and Young Adulthood
Martin grew up in a strong, religious family. Originally named Michael like his father, he changed his name after the famous founder of the Lutheran religion, Martin Luther. His grandfather founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and when he died, Martin’s father became the pastor. Martin attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he skipped both the ninth and the eleventh grades. At age 15, he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944. As a junior in college, he decided to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps to become a pastor.
As a doctoral student of theology at Boston University, Martin met Coretta Scott, a singer and musician at the New England Conservatory. They married and eventually had four children. King received his Ph.D. in 1955 and became pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama.
In the 1950s, many in America realized that the policy of segregation was unjust and against the basic ideals of the United States. Many black Americans had fought and sacrificed in World War II and were currently fighting and dying in Korea. It seemed horribly unfair, then, that at home, black Americans did not have equal rights with white Americans. Those who wanted to change segregation were faced with many options. One was just to wait until things changed, somehow. Another option was to turn to violence and to force white America to change. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose a third option. A strong Christian and student of nonviolent methods, King believed that the most effective and just way to promote change in America was to love your neighbor and win over his heart. King’s choice was not an easy one, and he bore the pain and suffering of his decision. However, his way of nonviolence and love most likely saved the lives of many, and brought about immense change in the United States.
In 1955, a brave and simple act by Rosa Parks, a 42 year-old woman, began the Civil Rights Movement and the national leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Montgomery buses, blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, and if there were no more white seats towards the front, blacks were supposed to stand and allow the whites to sit. Rosa Parks sat in the black section, but was ordered to stand by the bus driver because there were a few whites who had no seats. Parks refused to stand, was arrested, and fined. Black community leaders met and decided to fight the bus company. They chose Dr. King, Jr. to lead a bus boycott and force the bus company to change its policy. After 382 days of avoiding bus travel, enduring harassment, violence, and intimidation, the blacks of Montgomery forced the company to desegregate its buses. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became the noted leader of peaceful, nonviolent resistance to the unjust system of segregation in America.
Dr. King, Jr. was involved in many more Civil Rights battles, was jailed, and was eventually murdered for his desire to see a color-free American society. A moving orator, King, Jr. is most recognized for his “I Have a Dream” speech given in Washington, D.C. in 1963. It is here where King spoke of his dream of an America where children would grow up in a country where they would be judged based on the quality of their character and not the color of their skin. Segregation officially ended in the United States by the passage of various laws in the 1960s.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. King, Jr. was assassinated by white supremacist James Earl Ray. Ray fled the country, was found in London, convicted, and sentenced to 99 years in jail. In jail, he recanted his testimony, pled his innocence, and died in 1998.
Four days after his death Congressmen began an effort to have a federal holiday in honor of King, Jr. However, some Americans felt that he was just one person of many in the Civil Rights Movement. And, some Americans were upset that segregation ended. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law holiday legislation, making the third Monday in January the day to honor Dr. King, Jr. Even after the federal holiday was declared, several southern states included celebrations for various Confederate generals on that day, and some states protested.
For elementary through high school:
Answer these questions from the text:
1. When was Dr. King, Jr. born?
2. What was his original name?
3. Why did he change his name?
4. What was his wife’s name and how many children did they have?
5. What grades did Martin skip in high school?
6. What was Dr. King, Jr.’s occupation?
7. Was religion important to Dr. King, Jr.? Explain your answer:
8. What was segregation?
9. How did the Civil Rights Movement begin?
10. Who were Dr. King’s role models and how did these role models affect Dr. King, Jr.?
Questions for junior high and high school students:
- Dr. King, Jr. believed that for a non-violent protest to work, you had to show the rest of the country how the actions of some were horrible. For example, Dr. King, Jr. planned marches in areas where there was strong hatred against desegregation, perhaps knowing that his demonstrators would possibly be injured. In these demonstrations, policemen and firemen would hose demonstrators with strong fire hose equipment, or they would unleash attack dogs. Some have said that Dr. King’s methods were not good, because of this, and that it was King who was causing the violence. What do you think? In your answer, explain why you think the way you do.
- Dr. King, Jr. spoke of a color-free America, where people would be judged on the quality of their character, and not the color of their skin. To what extent do you think this is true today? What evidence do you have to support your answer?
- Racial quotas are when an institution, such as a university, decides that it wants to admit a certain percentage of students because of the color of their skin, even if there are more qualified applicants. Do you think Dr. King, Jr. would support or oppose this? Why do you think this?