The mid-twentieth century was a time of much reform for many Americans, and even more push for equality amongst African-Americans. Amongst the leaders of the well-known African-American movements toward desegregation and equality for black rights was the activist Martin Luther King, Jr. A renowned and respected pastor and a man well-known for his peace movements within the African-American revolts and the anti-war protests against Vietnam, there is no wonder that the United States celebrates Dr. King's achievements in history. Without his contributions to America, who is to say how much reform could have happened?
King led an educated life. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929 to Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Sr. And wife Alberta Williams King (King, n.d.). By the time he was 15, he attended Morehouse College and became a Baptist minister by 17. In 1951, Dr. King graduated at Crozer Theological Seminary and subsequently earned his Ph.D. In Boston University only a mere three years later. It would be along these years where he met his wife, Coretta Scott, and later married her (King, n.d.).
The first pastorate that King held was at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the "old Confederacy," Montgomery, Alabama (Peake, 2008). A mere few weeks after his first daughter Yolanda was born in 1955 the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott took effect, as the angry African-American community riled up to defend the rights of Rosa Parks. It was here that King took a leadership role, bringing the black community together in order to protest the racial segregation taking place in the South. During his major involvement in the coordinated bus boycotts and his leadership in the progression and activity of the Montgomery Improvement Association -- a feat that lasted over a year -- King was "arrested and jailed, his home was bombed," and he received "many threats against his life" (King, n.d.). Just two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black clergymen from around the nation banded together to form the organized Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with King presiding over the organization.
King's activism gained momentum throughout the years of his political activity, mostly aimed at peaceful protest methods against racism and segregation. In order to effectively participate in the civil rights movement -- moving at a speedy and nationalistic pace -- King returned to Atlanta, Georgia and accepted to become a copastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, having given up his own pastorate at Montgomery (King, n.d.). His continued leadership in the civil rights movement led him to organized campaigns in the South. In 1963, King "organized drives for black voter registration, desegregation, better education and housing" in a campaign at Birmingham, Alabama (King, n.d.). That following summer, King led the well-remembered march to Washington, DC, the venue where he delivered his most memorable "I Have a Dream" speech to over a hundred thousand marchers.
There is no doubt that King's influence grew far and wide, even having resulted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964; this act provided the desegregation of public establishments and non-discrimination regarding employment. By 1965, after a meeting with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act was also passed, enabling African-Americans the right to vote in equal standing as whites. His influence, however, began to wane in the last years of his activity, where African-Americans found that peaceful protest was not enabling reform quickly enough. Arguments of his blatant political fight against the war in Vietnam estranged many African-Americans towards his cause, and instead he became later associated with the "antiwar movement and national white leadership" (King, n.d.). It was from his tireless activity and unrelenting views on peaceful protests that finally caused his assassination in 1968, where he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. While King's influence waned, he was still well-loved by many, and around 100,000 people attended his funeral.
Influences and Beliefs
Known for his belief in a moral solution to the problems before him, King had been both praised and criticized for his non-violent protests regarding the civil rights movement. Most of these influences stemmed from his childhood, along with the upstanding and moral education in Crozer. His sermons and speeches were especially influenced by his background as a pastor, along with the preaching tradition that shaped not only his father's style, but his grandfather's as well (Peake, 2008). King found and understood the importance of carefully chosen words; he believed that the power of rhetorical and well-planned speeches would be persuasive enough to attain civil rights.
Like his father, King was a glutton for education and "big words" (Peake, 2008). Unlike his father, however, King had not planned to become a minister. It was at Morehouse where he changed his mind, leaning towards the further study of theology and philosophy. At Crozer Seminary, King had stated the "unshakable call to serve society" (Barnett, 1992), and spent many a day contemplating the tension created by the views on human potential vs. The neo-orthodox beliefs toward human sinfulness (Barnett, 1992). Because of the problems he had posed in his religious belief system and the background of the black tradition within his roots, it was towards Edgar S. Brightman that King turned. It was Brightman who insisted that "religious experience was decisive in developing personal religious meaning" (Barnett, 1992).
Brightman was not the only bright star that influenced King. Most of his ideas toward non-violent persuasions stemmed from his readings on Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian peaceful revolutionary. Gandhi's beliefs also became the "core of [King's] own philosophy" (King, n.d.). With the influences of Brightman and Gandhi under his belt, King became the spokesman for an America that he believed in. It was his belief that mankind was not "bound to the starless midnight of racism and war" and that "the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood [could] never become a reality" (Peake, 2008).
The Qualities of a Leader
The world's leaders have a few things in common, regardless of what belief he or she holds or what agenda he or she intends to push. It is their gift of drawing crowds that makes them leaders to be respected. King was one such leader; a tireless, relentless, passionate, and effective crowd-drawer. Through his moving speeches and sermons, King managed to lead a massive organization of black protesters without the use of violence in his wake. But what made him such an effective speech-giver in the first place?
King's speeches were highly intelligent and elegant, evident from his breeding and studies. Yet he was personable; he called upon the preacher-listener interaction that traditionally stayed within the confines of black ministry. He influenced such rhetorical effectiveness that the African-Americans could not help but be won over with his words and his cause. After his "Give Us the Ballot" speech during a Prayer Pilgrimage at Washington, DC, it had become clear that "people [would] follow him anywhere" (Peake, 2008).
King pulled from various works and daily life experiences in order to allow his audience to relate to his persuasions; he was particular with using details from the poor and oppressed, knowing that they would be the ones listening to the grievances that the black community was experiencing. He also used religious and philosophical writings, poems and literary quotes, and the words of other world leaders. He alluded to and quoted biblical passages, and mentioned African-American history. He called upon the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas and Reinhold Niebuhr, echoing the "belief that politics, faith, and freedom were all intricately connected" (Peake, 2008).
Furthermore, it was King's usage of rhetoric and repetition that endeared his speeches to his audience. One can see the effectiveness of his repeated phrases, first showing up in "Give Us the Ballot," wherein he repeatedly yells out "give us the…