“…I have a dream. A dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…” This piece is from Reverend Martin Luther King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech, where on August 28th, 1963, the year marking a hundred years since President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed thousands of slaves, Dr. King delivered one of the most influential talks in history. But Reverend King was not just a man with a speech. As the title conveyed, Dr. King was a man with a dream, and a plan. A plan to make sure his dream and goal would ring in the ears of all of America’s youth for the rest of history, and sure enough, through years of persisting, resisting hate and discouragement from everyone around him, he succeeded. This essay will tell the story of Martin Luther King and why he succeeded more than anyone else in his field, what inspired him, and obstacles he faced.
Starting off, others before Reverend King and after him have stood for the same reason, but why hasn’t anyone else has ever gone to such great heights? Well, Dr. King understood the power of words. Instead of physically fighting against the unethical laws in action back then, he arranged and spoke at speeches, rallies, and other peaceful events. His form of protest was a way to stand up without harming anyone. He also found that there were people all around that knew they were being treated unfairly and wanted to fight back; all that really needed to be done was to bring them all together. Of course, King understood that tasks like changing centuries old ways of thinking were almost Herculean, and also required huge risks. Learning from Henry David Thoreau, an American essayist and author, King believed and made sure his followers knew that the true American Dream could not be achieved when such conspicuous injustices were commonly accepted in society and like Thoreau, willingly went to jail in order to further push his movement’s progress. In fact, King’s 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail, which he wrote while in confinement responding to criticism from several clergymen that argued that social injustices should be fought solely in court and not on the streets through protests or marches is now considered one of the most powerful open letters in history.
Speaking of Thoreau, the essayist was one of the many people Dr. King drew inspiration from. Although both of the figures’ intentions were poles apart, King was introduced to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, an essay where he vehemently argues why and how conscience can be a higher authority than government, later heavily affected King’s ideas on reform. Thoreau was also the base for another one of Reverend King’s idols, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi was strongly influenced by Civil Disobedience but also by Thoreau’s other essay, “Life without Principle” where he eloquently writes how excessive devotion to business and money has negatively affected society. Using his knowledge from these works, Gandhi employed another form of civil disobedience halfway around the world by, instead of being a one-man operation, gathering a group of people with similar ideas as him combining their forces together. These two previous men impacted M.L.K from afar, through their speeches and literary works, but two other people that personally knew him and made a difference in his life were his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. MLK Sr., who was pastor at the King family’s church in Atlanta, instilled Christian beliefs in the civil rights activist from childhood, and supported King throughout his life, was the first one to originally teach King about society’s corrupt morals and attitude towards people of African American descent. Mordecai Johnson, who King first encountered upon hearing him preach at the Fellowship House of Philadelphia in 1950, closely knew King and was one of the people to first to present Gandhi’s ideas to him. Johnson was also known as the first black president of Howard University and one of the most prominent African-American pastors of the twentieth century. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, also known as The King Institute, Johnson’s “command and conviction captivated King when he first heard Johnson speak”, and after meeting him and sharing ideas, Johnson and King stayed in contact for the rest of King’s life; Johnson even ended up awarding King an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Howard University. The four men mentioned made a tremendous difference in Dr. King’s life and work, but it was not limited to them. As Gandhi, Mark Twain and even Bill Nye have said something similar to, everyone you will ever meet has something you can learn. King was a definite believer in this theory and learned from everyone he met, accumulating experiences and facts throughout his journey and using them to his advantage.
Lastly, although all three people discussed in the previous paragraph achieved monumental things and are figures held in high esteem, all of them encountered bumps on their path to greatness, and King was no exception. It had been a century since slavery had been abolished, but racial segregation still tormented the very same people who had been promised a land of freedom a century ago. It was made legal by Jim Crow laws, which were named after an African-American fictional minstrel show character of the same name played by caucasian entertainer Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who amused much of the white population in the 30s and 40s with racist skits about a dim-witted slave. The fight to put an end to the cruel confines society had built for the black population was long and hard. Since the laws were put in place by the government themselves, police forces and authorities were never on King’s side. During 1965’s Bloody Sunday, peaceful demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and surrounding communities resulted in the arrests of thousands, including King, who wrote to the New York Times following his release that, “This is Selma, Alabama. There are more people of color (People of color has been inserted in place of an offensive word. Note that this is nothing against Dr. King; the fact is simply that vocabulary of that sort was socially acceptable back then and now is considered politically incorrect.) in jail with me than there were on the voting rolls.” The march had been arranged in order to combat black voting laws and later mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but nonetheless caused many avertable and unnecessary deaths. Another one of Dr. King’s adversaries were the infamous Ku Klux Klan, who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, an African-American church which promoted non-violence and Dr. King’s movement often. The bombing caused the death of four young girls and non-fatally injured many more. Third, although the public had less significant impacts on King’s movement, leaders such as himself only make a difference because of their followers, and certain decisions lost and gained them. Taking Bloody Sunday as an example once more, after the first almost-massacre, King attempted to try again despite bribes from the government to stay silent. This time, though in hopes of avoiding police action, King only stopped at a point, knelt down with his fellow protestors, prayed, and changed directions, heading back. This incident caused many people to believe that King had, in fact, accepted the money and that the leader was straying from his original beliefs. Many people still believe that King betrayed the civil rights movement with that action, and some believe he simply wanted to keep casualties at zero, but King’s overall efforts to change segregation laws and gain black rights is the main focus and what he is remembered for, so letting one controversial topic overshadow all his greater impacts is foolish.
In conclusion, Dr. King is clearly an impressive historical figure and has made irreversible changes on the way society thinks. He was familiar with the saying “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and led the entire race that made up this figurative “wheel” to squeak, and after almost fifteen years of withstanding prejudice and bigotry, Jim Crow laws were eradicated, freeing people of color from the cage they had been imprisoned in. Today, although the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 at a conference he had attended, his story and goal are being taught in almost every school in the United States, his followers and people who believe in his ways keep growing, and racial prejudice even closer to being extirpated than before. Notice, unfortunately, that we are closer to eliminating this and not completely there. People of African American descent have been and sometimes still are at the receiving end of so much morally corrupt behavior that no matter how many things we change, it will still be difficult to serve them utter and full compensation, but that does not change the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is like the first domino in a chain, making one movement that results in thousands of others after him. People like him keep society stay true to America’s true values and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”