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Minister, saint, hero, civil rights activist - These are the words often used to describe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - However, in light of President Barack Obama's second-term inauguration ceremony this morning, the word that seems to fit the bill perfectly, is visionary - The man who had the foresight to see that America could one day transform into a nation where everyone is equal, regardless of race, color or creed. So who was this amazing man that single handedly spearheaded America's civil rights movement?
Born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929, Dr. King's first encounter with segregation was at the age of six when he realized that his best friend would be heading to a different school not because he lived in another district, but because, he happened to be white! That's when his parents explained to him that he lived in a city where blacks and whites led totally disparate lives - They ate at different restaurants, went to different schools and even, sat in separate areas when traveling in buses and trains.
While he wished things were different, it was a way of life that Dr. King accepted until he spent a summer working in the tobacco fields in Simsbury, Connecticut and discovered that not all of America was like this - In the northern states, there was no separation by color. Everyone did everything, together.
Though Dr. King did return to Atlanta to pursue his higher education at an all-black college, the first seed of the events that led to him becoming the country's most influential civil rights leader had been planted. While at college, he read an essay by Henry David Thoreau which talked about how one could affect unjust laws with peaceful protests. The message was re-affirmed by Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, who not only led India's Independence movement, but also, spent 20 years fighting apartheid in South Africa.
In 1954, Dr. King who was by now an ordained Minister and married, faced a tough decision - Whether to become the pastor of a church in the northern states of New York or Massachusetts or accept the same position in the Deep South, namely Montgomery, Alabama where discrimination against African Americans was even more prevalent than in Atlanta. Luckily for America, his wife Coretta and he decided to take the tougher road and picked the latter.
As pastor, he encouraged the residents of Montgomery to exercise their civil rights by registering to vote and joining the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.
But what really spurred Dr. King into action was an incident that occurred on December 1st, 1955. A civil rights activist by the name of Rosa Parks decided to take a stand against the injustice with a simple act - By refusing to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger. This insolence caused her to get arrested, fined and even locked in jail, for one night.
To bring justice to her, Dr. King asked the residents of Montgomery to boycott all public transport. This was no easy request. The buses were the only mode of transport for many of the residents whose jobs entailed traveling long distances. However, they took up the challenge not for one day or one month but, a full year! And, it was not just Montgomery, but other parts of the nation with similar laws that joined in too! In 1956, the activists won their first battle when the Supreme Court of the United States passed a ruling to abolish the transportation segregation law.
Dr. King was not done yet - For the next decade he traveled around the country encouraging people to fight against all kinds of segregation in a non-violent peaceful manner, by organizing sit-ins, boycotts and leading protest marches. During this time, he gave many inspiring speeches, the most memorable one of which, was delivered on August 28th, 1963.
In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy asked the US Congress to pass a civil rights bill that would give all Americans equal access to public places. To try convince the officials to approve it, Dr. King along with other civil rights leaders asked people to come to Washington D.C. and stage a peaceful march to demonstrate their support.
Over 250,000 people from all over the country flew, drove, rode buses and even walked to participate in what the history books call the March on Washington! It was here, standing on steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Dr. King gave his most quoted, 'I have a dream' speech, in which he articulated his vision of a country where everyone would be equal.
Tragically, Dr. King was assassinated while on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, and did not live long enough to see his dream come true.
Today, 45 years after his death, we still honor this great man and his passion for equality, by celebrating his life on the third Monday of every January. Thanks to him and his 'radical' vision, America is slowly but surely, become a nation where a person is judged by his/her merit not, color of skin.
However, resting on our past laurels is not enough. We now challenge you to go one step further and seek out your own dream. While it may sound impossible and take some time to achieve, it will come true, if you put your mind to it - Dr. King's sure did, didn't it?
If you are interested in reading more about Dr. King or any of the other history making people mentioned in this article, be sure to seek out the books shown below, at your school library or local bookstore.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
Resource: Who Was Martin Luther King. Jr