The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the entire nation pauses in remembrance of a civil rights hero. At least, that’s the point of the federal holiday that takes place on the third Monday of each January. MLK Day was designed to honor the activist and minister assassinated in 1968, whose accomplishments have continued to inspire generations of Americans.

But though the holiday now graces the United States’ federal calendar and affects countless offices, schools, businesses and other public and private spaces, it wasn’t always observed. The fight for a holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor was an epic struggle in and of itself—and it continues to face resistance in the form of competing holidays to leaders of the Confederacy.

King was the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday, and for many familiar with his non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement, it made sense to celebrate him. But for others, the suggestion that King—a Black minister who was vilified during his life and gunned down when he was just 39 years old—deserved a holiday was nothing short of incendiary.

WATCH: The Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first push for a holiday honoring King took place just four days after his assassination. John Conyers, then a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, took to the floor of Congress to insist on a federal holiday in King’s honor. However, the request fell on deaf ears.

One of the few Black people in Congress, Conyers had been an active member of the civil rights movement for years. He had visited Selma, Alabama in support of King and the 1965 Freedom Day, one of several mass voter registration events in which large numbers of African Americans attempted to register to vote despite local defiance and armed intimidation.

When his first bill failed, Conyers was undaunted. “Conyers would persist year after year, Congress after Congress, in introducing the same bill again and again, gathering co-sponsors along the way, until his persistence finally paid off,” writes historian Don Wolfensberger.

He enlisted the help of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he was a founding member. For 15 years, the CBC attempted to break the stalled legislation loose, advocating within their constituent communities and helping Conyers introduce his bill year after year.

Every single attempt failed, even after the bill was brought to the floor for debate.

The tide finally turned in the early 1980s. By then, the CBC had collected six million signatures in support of a federal holiday in honor of King. Stevie Wonder had written a hit song, “Happy Birthday,” about King, which drove an upswell of public support for the holiday. And in 1983, as civil rights movement veterans gathered in Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, and the 15th anniversary of his murder, something shook loose.

When the legislation once again made it to the floor, it was filibustered by Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina. As Helms pressed to introduce FBI smear material on King—whom the agency had spent years trying to pinpoint as a Communist and threat to the United States during the height of his influence—into the Congressional record, tensions boiled over. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York, brought the materials onto the floor, then dropped them to the ground in disgust in a pivotal moment of the debate.

The bill passed with ease the following day (78-22) and President Ronald Reagan immediately signed the legislation.

But though the first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986, it took years for observance to filter through to every state. Several Southern states promptly combined Martin Luther, King, Jr. Day with holidays that uplifted Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19. Arizona initially observed the holiday, then rescinded it, leading to a years-long scuffle over whether to celebrate King that ended in multiple public referenda, major boycotts of the state, and a final voter registration push that helped propel a final referendum toward success in 1992.

It wasn’t until 2000 that every state in the Union finally observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today, the holiday is still celebrated in conjunction with a celebration of Confederate figures in some states—but after three decades of contention and controversy, it is observed.

What is the History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

On the third Monday of January, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Most people see this as an uncontroversial holiday and take for granted that Dr. King's significant contributions to securing equality of all Americans should be celebrated. However, this was not always the case. Civil rights advocates fought for years to get this holiday recognized, and there were significant disagreements and controversies along the way. Some states still hesitate to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

The Long Road to Martin Luther King Jr Day

On this day (kinda) in 1993, Martin Luther King Jr Day became an official holiday celebrated in all 50 states. The history of this is bizarre. It became a national holiday starting in 1986, even though Ronald Reagan signed the law in 1983. The holdout was Arizona, which actually lost the hosting of Super Bowl XXVII, because its people just couldn’t manage to support it.

There were two ballot measures in 1990. One (301) would have replaced Columbus Day with MLK day and the people hated it &mdash voting it down by almost 51 percentage points. The other (302) would have just created a new state holiday, and it lost narrowly by 1.6 percentage points. Finally, in 1992, the people of Arizona approved Proposition 300 that combined Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays into President’s day and created “Martin Luther King Jr/Civil Rights Day,” by a wide margin of almost 23 percentage points.

Interestingly, the difference was not the specifics of the measure or that the people had had a change of heart. The difference was that Propositions 301 and 302 took place in 1990 &mdash an off year. Proposition 300 took place in 1992 &mdash a presidential election year. If you look at the numbers, you will see that roughly the same number of people voted against 300 as voted against 302. It’s just there were a whole lot more liberals who showed up to the polls to vote for Bill Clinton (who still lost, but only barely).

It still kind of bugs me that in the state of Arizona, Martin Luther King Jr Day is “Martin Luther King Jr/Civil Rights Day.” It isn’t the only state to do this. Idaho and New Hampshire do similar things. Now understand: I am in favor of turning Martin Luther King Jr Day into Civil Rights Day. I am in favor of this because I don’t like these celebrations being about specific people. King is a symbol for a wider movement and that is the thing that we should be celebrating. But I think that adding “civil rights” or “human rights” to the name is meant to diminish Martin Luther King. And that is not my wish, as King would always be an important part of any such celebration.

Virtual. Offerings.

Author Talk

Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Life and Win The 1960 Election

In conversation with Charles Black and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. and GPB’s Virginia Prescott.

Documentary Film Festival

The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University will host a free, four-day webinar and film festival, from the evening of January 15 through January 18, 2021.

Educational Resources

Through digital storytelling, writing prompts, art activities, and supplemental interactives, this Civil Rights Toolkit provides something for all ages.

Martin Luther King, Jr. : I Have a Dream Speech (1963)

On August 28, 1963, some 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, a young man named Martin Luther King climbed the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to describe his vision of America. More than 200,000 people-black and white-came to listen. They came by plane, by car, by bus, by train, and by foot. They came to Washington to demand equal rights for black people. And the dream that they heard on the steps of the Monument became the dream of a generation.

As far as black Americans were concerned, the nation’s response to Brown was agonizingly slow, and neither state legislatures nor the Congress seemed willing to help their cause along. Finally, President John F. Kennedy recognized that only a strong civil rights bill would put teeth into the drive to secure equal protection of the laws for African Americans. On June 11, 1963, he proposed such a bill to Congress, asking for legislation that would provide “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.” Southern representatives in Congress managed to block the bill in committee, and civil rights leaders sought some way to build political momentum behind the measure.

A. Philip Randolph, a labor leader and longtime civil rights activist, called for a massive march on Washington to dramatize the issue. He welcomed the participation of white groups as well as black in order to demonstrate the multiracial backing for civil rights. The various elements of the civil rights movement, many of which had been wary of one another, agreed to participate. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Urban League all managed to bury their differences and work together. The leaders even agreed to tone down the rhetoric of some of the more militant activists for the sake of unity, and they worked closely with the Kennedy administration, which hoped the march would, in fact, lead to passage of the civil rights bill.

On August 28, 1963, under a nearly cloudless sky, more than 250,000 people, a fifth of them white, gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to rally for “jobs and freedom.” The roster of speakers included speakers from nearly every segment of society — labor leaders like Walter Reuther, clergy, film stars such as Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando and folksingers such as Joan Baez. Each of the speakers was allotted fifteen minutes, but the day belonged to the young and charismatic leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had originally prepared a short and somewhat formal recitation of the sufferings of African Americans attempting to realize their freedom in a society chained by discrimination. He was about to sit down when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” Encouraged by shouts from the audience, King drew upon some of his past talks, and the result became the landmark statement of civil rights in America — a dream of all people, of all races and colors and backgrounds, sharing in an America marked by freedom and democracy.

For further reading: Herbert Garfinkel, When Negroes March: The March on Washington…(1969) Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988) Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (1982).
“I HAVE A DREAM” (1963)

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of whithering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the colored America is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

One hundred years later, the colored American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the colored American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.

We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now it the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now it the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.

I would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of it’s colored citizens. This sweltering summer of the colored people’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the colored Americans needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the colored person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for white only.”

We cannot be satisfied as long as a colored person in Mississippi cannot vote and a colored person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of your trials and tribulations. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality.

You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our modern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you, my friends, we have the difficulties of today and tomorrow.

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have 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 their character.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that, let freedom, ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi and every mountainside.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

The history behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - For 35 years the United States has observed a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Junior.

But it took another 20 years to have the holiday put in place.

As with any holiday, there is a deeper meaning to today than a day off from work.

“Change through peaceful means, the importance of community, service to others and respect for all people,” said Georgia Southern History Professor Christopher Hendrix

Yet, Martin Luther King Junior Day was not always embraced as enthusiastically as the precepts it celebrates.

“It was really controversial getting the holiday started. But it started early. John Conyers, representative for Michigan, proposed that four days after King was assassinated.”

But it would be decades before it happened.

Hendricks remembers there being political opposition.

“I was in high school in North Carolina at the time and our two Senators, Jesse Helms and John East, were the two who really pushed against this, really portrayed King as a Communist and tried to play that angle.”

But public support was gathered quite publicly.

“Stevie Wonder. Wonder went and he was playing the King Center and he said “we are going to make this a holiday. So, in 1980, wrote the song ‘Happy Birthday,’ working for this and he went on tour.”

A year later, he took that support to a concert in Washington D.C.

“And he and Coretta Scott King presented Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal with I think it was six million signatures to get this thing done.”

The King holiday was signed into law by President Reagan in 1983 and observed for the first time 35 years ago, in 1986.

But it and perception of it have continued to evolve.

“I think the acceptance of this as a holiday was when, in the middle of the 90s, 1994, President Clinton made this a day of service and John Lewis had been really pushing this.”

Now the reason for the holiday is as accepted as the holiday itself.

“When’s the last time you heard someone say they didn’t want to take this day off? It’s been a long time.”

The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - HISTORY

On Monday, the United States observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a holiday commemorating the birth of the civil rights leader.

Since its inception in the 1980s, the holiday has aimed to turn King into a harmless icon of social conciliation, while obscuring his radical criticisms of American capitalism and militarism. But now, in 2020, this has been joined by a new thrust. King’s conception of a mass democratic movement for civil rights based on the unified action of all the oppressed sections of the population is being replaced with an essentially racialist narrative that presents all American history in terms of a struggle between whites and blacks. This racial narrative requires the marginalization of King’s historical role.

This is exhibited starkly in the New York Times 1619 Project, whose “reframing” of the history of American race relations makes no mention of King. This is not an oversight on the part of a project that proclaims itself as nothing less than a new curriculum for school children. The core of King’s politics—the struggle for equality—runs counter to the aims of contemporary liberalism, which is predicated on a fight for privileges among the upper-middle class.

King, a Baptist minister and theologian, emerged as the most prominent leader and voice of the mass civil rights struggle for racial equality that emerged in the period after World War II—from the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 against Jim Crow segregation until 1968, when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while supporting striking sanitation workers.

King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929, during a period that scholars have called “the nadir” of American race relations. In the Jim Crow South beginning in the 1890s, a raft of laws stripped the right to vote from the vast majority of blacks. All public space was segregated by law or custom—schools and colleges busses, trains, streetcars water fountains and bathrooms diners and movie theaters. Interracial marriage was illegal, and even casual interactions between whites and blacks, for example on city sidewalks, were to play out in a custom designed to humiliate and degrade blacks.

The Democratic Party ruled the Jim Crow South unchallenged. Behind it stood the ever-present threat of state-sanctioned racist violence. By one count, mobs and bands of killers lynched more than 4,000 blacks in the South from the 1870s through the 1940s.

Yet racism was not an end in and of itself. As C. Vann Woodward long ago established in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), it was imposed as a direct response to the Populist movement of poor farmers, which, in the 1880s, had raised the specter of interracial unity among the oppressed. That Woodward’s book was upheld as “the historical Bible” of the civil rights movement reflected that movement’s agreement with its key finding, that, as King put it, “racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races”—the position advanced by the 1619 Project—but “was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”

The Populist movement collapsed a few decades before King’s birth. Its inability to overcome the southern oligarchy resulted from its social composition among isolated rural farmers, an undifferentiated and rapidly declining section of the population. Yet its achievements were extraordinary. Shaking the two-party system to its foundations, Populism’s challenge to capitalism ultimately fed into the emergence of American socialism.

The “Great Migration” and the growth of the working class

While King looked to Populism for inspiration, it was ultimately a far more profound transformation, arising from the powerful development of American capitalism, that provided the basis for the civil rights movement: the development of the working class.

In 1900, after the defeat of the Populist movement, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, most in conditions of rural isolation. In the 1920s, over 1.5 million blacks left the South for northern cities, bound for wage work. Many more moved to cities in the South—including Atlanta, where King was born, as well as Alabama’s industrial cities of Birmingham and Montgomery, which birthed the modern civil rights movement. By 1960, only 15 percent of African Americans remained on farms, a dramatic social transformation which historians now term the Great Migration.

In the cities, the black migrants faced new forms of racism and, as in East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919, occasional paroxysms of vicious violence, typically overseen by their historical antagonists in the Democratic Party. Yet it is undeniable that this vast movement—from country to city, from farm to factory, and from South to North and West—was an intensely liberating development. Its impact on American culture can only be called exhilarating.

The arrival in the cities of this brutally oppressed people, a mere half-century separated from chattel slavery, germinated the cultural and intellectual florescence associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the first mass African American political organizations and trade unions, as well as the great forms of popular music including ragtime, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock and roll.

The Great Migration raised African-American workers as a critical section of the working class. But the fusing of that class across racial and national lines was no mean task under conditions in which capitalist employers knew well that they could pit workers—white, black, immigrant—against each other in wage competition. The American Federation of Labor, among the most provincial and reactionary labor organizations on the planet, fed into these divisions. Most of its unions imposed racial exclusions against blacks and agitated against immigrants. Reformist socialists that oriented to the AFL, such as Victor Berger of Milwaukee, also excluded blacks from their conception of the working class.

Under these conditions—the emergence of a powerful industrial working class, but one hamstrung by outmoded forms of organization—the Russian Revolution of 1917 hit with meteoric impact. Among the black intellectuals inspired by the Bolsheviks were Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and A. Phillip Randolph, who co-founded the socialist magazine The Messenger in 1917 and went on to head the largest predominantly black trade union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

These intellectuals immediately drew comparisons to the situation of Jews under the seemingly eternal Romanov dynasty. “For American Negroes the indisputable and outstanding fact of the Russian Revolution,” McKay explained in 1921, “is that a mere handful of Jews, much less in ratio to the number of Negroes in the American population, have attained, through the Revolution, all the political and social rights denied them under the regime of the Czar.”

In the North, socialists took the lead in the fight for the great industrial unions in auto, meatpacking, rubber, and steel, insisting that blacks be accepted on equal footing with all others. Even in the Deep South, socialists fought under the banner of the Russian Revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, winning the allegiance of militant workers, black and white, in such places as Alabama, where the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American youth falsely accused of rape, won the support of workers the world over. It is difficult to overstate the heroism of these workers who braved the wrath of the “southern lawmen” as well as the Ku Klux Klan.

The Stalinists of the Communist Party, along with the supposedly left CIO bureaucracy, betrayed these workers in the name of their alliance with the Democratic Party, whose southern wing remained in the hands of the white supremacist oligarchy. Nonetheless, socialism remained the bête noire of the Jim Crow politicians, who saw in every stirring of the southern workers the work of “outside agitators” and “communists.” And, despite the best efforts of reactionary red-baiters, socialism continued to influence a layer of southern intellectuals and leaders.

The significance of King

King was neither a Marxist nor a revolutionary. But his socialist sympathies, and those of his wife, Coretta Scott King, were well-known. He agitated for a significant economic restructuring of American society, albeit without calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system. Even though he cautiously adapted his politics to the pressures of the red-baiting environment of the United States in the 1950s, King spoke a language utterly incompatible with the racial narrative of contemporary rightwing affluent petty-bourgeois nationalists.

Communism “should challenge us first to be more concerned about social justice,” King noted in a sermon first delivered in 1953. “However much is wrong with Communism we must admit that it arose as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged. The Communist Manifesto which was published in 1847 by Marx and Engels emphasizes throughout how the middle class has exploited the lower class. Communism emphasizes a classless society. Along with this goes a strong attempt to eliminate racial prejudice. Communism seeks to transcend the superficialities of race and color, and you are able to join the Communist party whatever the color of your skin or the quality of the blood in your veins.”

King eloquently articulated the democratic sentiments of Americans of all races and ethnicities striving to tear down all the artificial barriers erected by the ruling class in a conscious effort to divide the working class.

In a 1965 sermon King explained that the “majestic words” of the Declaration of Independence penned by Thomas Jefferson, that “all men are created equal,” were the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. He did not see that document, which gave expression to the Enlightenment principles which animated the American Revolution, as a cynical ploy or a lie—as 1619 Project figurehead Nikole Hannah-Jones imagines it—but an as yet unfulfilled promise, “lifted to cosmic proportions,” and one the civil rights movement was fighting to make a reality.

He and many others who were part of the mass movement in the 1950s and 1960s understood very well that no lasting progress could be made without the unity of the working class and recognized that under capitalism workers were being oppressed regardless of the color of their skin.

Writing in 1958, King noted that two summers of work in a factory as a teenager had exposed him to “economic injustice firsthand, and [I] realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro. Through these early experiences I grew up deeply conscious of the varieties of injustice in our society.”

Whether or not King’s assassination was more than the work of the small-time hood James Earl Ray, it is a documented fact that, from the early 1960s on, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover aimed to destroy the civil rights leader through a campaign of dirty tricks, media leaks, intense surveillance, and even encouraging King to kill himself. “Yet somehow,” historian William Chafe writes, “King emerged from the ordeal a stronger, more resolute, more courageous leader.”

The Forgotten Socialist History of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s goal was unflinching: the “total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.” (State Library and Archives of Florida)

In 1952 a 23 -year-old Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a love letter to Coretta Scott. Along with coos of affection and apologies for his hasty handwriting, he described his feelings not just toward his future wife, but also toward America’s economic system. ​ “ I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic,” he admitted to his then-girlfriend, concluding that ​ “ capitalism has outlived its usefulness.”

King composed these words as a grad student on the tail end of his first year at the Boston University School of Theology. And far from representing just the utopianism of youth, the views expressed in the letter would go on to inform King’s economic vision throughout his life.

As Americans honor King on his birthday, it is important to remember that the civil rights icon was also a democratic socialist, committed to building a broad movement to overcome the failings of capitalism and achieve both racial and economic equality for all people.

Capitalism ​ “ has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes,” King wrote in his 1952 letter to Scott. He would echo the sentiment 15 years later in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?: ​ “ Capitalism has often left a gap of superfluous wealth and abject poverty [and] has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

In his famous 1967 Riverside Church speech, King thundered, ​ “ When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

And in an interview with the New York Times in 1968 , King described his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) this way, ​ “ In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle.”

Speaking at a staff retreat of the SCLC in 1966 , King said that ​ “ something is wrong … with capitalism” and ​ “ there must be a better distribution of wealth” in the country. ​ “ Maybe,” he suggested, ​ “ America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In Where Do We Go From Here, which calls for ​ “ the full emancipation and equality of Negroes and the poor,” King advocates policies in line with a democratic socialist program: a guaranteed annual income, constitutional amendments to secure social and economic equality, and greatly expanded public housing. He endorses the Freedom Budget put forward by socialist activist A. Philip Randolph, which included such policies as a jobs guarantee, a living wage and universal healthcare. He also outlines how economic inequality can circumscribe civil rights. While the wealthy enjoy easy access to lawyers and the courts, ​ “ the poor, however, are helpless,” he writes.

This emphasis on poverty is not always reflected in contemporary teachings about King, which tend to focus strictly on his advocacy for civil rights. But Where Do We Go From Here and the final project of King’s life — the Poor People’s Campaign — show that King’s dream included a future of both racial and economic equality.

“ What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” King is widely quoted as asking, ​ “ if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” In King’s view, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the voter registration drives across the South and the Selma to Montgomery march comprised but the first phase of the civil rights movement. In Where Do We Go From Here, King called the victories of the movement up that point in 1967 ​ “ a foothold, no more” in the struggle for freedom. Only a campaign to realize economic as well as racial justice could win true equality for African-Americans. In naming his goal, King was unflinching: the ​ “ total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”

The shortcoming of the first phase of the civil rights movement, to King, was its emphasis on opportunity rather than guarantees. The ability to buy a hamburger at a lunch counter without harassment did not guarantee that the hungry would be fed. Access to the ballot box did not guarantee anti-racist legislation. The end of Jim Crow laws did not guarantee the flourishing of African-American communities. Decency did not guarantee equality.

Some white people had gone along with the fight for access and opportunity, King concluded, because it cost them nothing. ​ “ Jobs,” however, ​ “ are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls.” When African-Americans sought not only to be treated with dignity, but guaranteed fair housing and education, many whites abandoned the movement. In King’s words, as soon as he demanded ​ “ the realization of equality” — the second phase of the civil rights movement — he discovered whites suddenly indifferent.

King considered the Poor People’s Campaign to be the vehicle for this next phase of the movement precisely because it offered both material advances and the potential for stronger cross-racial organizing. For King, only a multiracial working-class movement, which the Poor People’s Campaign aspired to be, could guarantee both racial and economic equality.

King was disgusted by the juxtaposition of decadence and destitution in America. We ​ “ compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity,” he fumed. Quoting social justice advocate Hyman Bookbinder, King wrote that ending poverty in America merely requires demanding that the rich ​ “ become even richer at a slower rate.”

For King, the only solution to America’s crisis of poverty was the redistribution of wealth. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King declared, ​ “ Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

From his early letters to Coretta Scott until his final days, King put forward a vision of a society that provides equality for people of all races and backgrounds. This is the cause King spent his life fighting for. And it is one we should recommit to as we honor his legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: 5 surprising facts about the civil rights hero

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Reflecting on the civil rights hero's profound impact

Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece, reflects on his legacy for future generations on 'Fox &amp Friends.'

Martin Luther King Jr. carved his way into history as a civil rights hero whose influence and legacy continue to inspire people around the world more than half a century after his death.

While the civil rights leader may be most remembered for his iconic and oft-quoted "I Have a Dream" address at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, King did more than just dream during his lifetime.

His non-violent approach to protest and social change saw him become the youngest man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. A year later, King participated in the Selma March, which resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that helped African Americans exercise their right to vote.

As the U.S. celebrates the life of the civil rights icon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here are five surprising facts you may not know about King.

He wasn’t named Martin at birth

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Ga., as Michael King Jr.

But King’s father Michael, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, became inspired by the work of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther during a trip overseas to such places as Rome, Egypt, Jerusalem and Berlin for the Baptist World Alliance.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke to thousands during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo/File)

When he returned in 1934, he decided to change his name and his son’s name from Michael King to Martin Luther King, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford.

However, it wasn’t until 1957, when the younger King was 28 years old, that he officially changed the name on his birth certificate from Michael King Jr. to Martin Luther King Jr.

Started college at age 15

In 1944, King entered Morehouse College in Atlanta under a wartime program that admitted gifted high school students to boost enrollment, according to King's biography from Encylopedia Britannica.

King did not initially set out to become a minister, studying medicine and law until his senior year. He was mentored by college president Benjamin Mays, a Baptist minister and rights activist who influenced King’s later decision. King graduated from Morehouse in 1948.

Won a Grammy

King was awarded a Grammy in 1970. He won Best Spoken Word Album for "Why I Oppose The War In Vietnam," recorded from a sermon he delivered in 1967.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963. (AP Photo)

He was previously nominated for two Grammys in the spoken-word category for recordings of "I Have a Dream" and "We Shall Overcome."

Survived first assassination attempt in 1958

Almost a decade before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, King survived an attempt on his life.

A 29-year-old King was at a book signing in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood on Sept. 20, 1958, when Izola Ware Curry approached and asked "Is this Martin Luther King?"

Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, 50 years later

Martin Luther King Jr's assassination: A look at the aftermath and what happened on April 4, 1968

When King replied "Yes," Curry, a 42-year-old mentally ill Black woman, plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

King retold the story of this first attempt on his life on the eve of his assassination in 1968, saying that had he merely sneezed, he would have died from his wound.

King and George Washington

King joined President George Washington as the only two Americans to have their birthdays observed as a federal holiday in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that recognized the third Monday in January – close to King’s birthday – as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Proclamation 5597 -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 1987

In celebrating the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we honor an American who recognized the great injustice of segregation and discrimination, and made it his life's purpose and toil to right those wrongs in favor of justice, freedom, equality, fairness, and reconciliation.

Because Dr. King eschewed violence, relying instead on his eloquence and the moral force of his convictions, the cause he led changed not only laws but hearts and minds as well. He braved imprisonment, violence, and threats because, as he said, "History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.'' Martin Luther King, Jr., fell victim to the violence he fought so fervently -- but his nonviolent quest had already altered our land irrevocably and for the better.

Dr. King's vision, as he said so often, was the fulfillment of the American dream. He explained this to the graduates of Lincoln University in 1961 when he quoted our Declaration of Independence, `"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'' and said, simply, "This is the dream.'' Dr. King emphasized that this dream excludes no one from its promise and protection and that it affirms that every individual's rights are God-given and "neither conferred by nor derived from the state.''

Martin Luther King, Jr., also expressed his vision in the eternal calls for justice, forgiveness, brotherhood, and love of neighbor recorded in Holy Writ. He frequently prayed, in the words of the prophet Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.''

Dr. King also appealed clearly and compellingly through moving accounts such as his description of a little girl marching with her mother who answered a policeman's question, "What do you want?'' by replying, "Freedom.'' Said Dr. King, "She could not even pronounce the word, but no Gabriel trumpet could have sounded a truer note.''

Every American knows the story of Dr. King's last sermon, given April 3, 1968 , the night before his death. He said, expressing his credo, that he wasn't concerned about living a long life but about doing God's will. He'd been to the mountaintop, he said, and he'd seen the promised land . He said that America would reach that land, but added, "I may not get there with you.'' He concluded, "I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.''

Nearly five years before, Dr. King had spoken words of solace, of reconciliation, and of promise during his eulogy for the children who had died in the bombing of their Sunday school class. He said that we must not despair, nor become bitter, nor lose faith in each other. He said that death does not end the sentence of life but "punctuates it to more lofty significance.'' He told the children's parents that although their daughters had not lived long, they had lived well: "Where they died and what they were doing when death came will remain a marvelous tribute to each of you and an eternal epitaph to each of them.'' Surely Dr. King's courageous fight for justice, equality, and brotherhood will remain his lasting epitaph and his living legacy.

In a sermon on April 4, 1967 , a year to the day before his murder, Dr. King quoted the famous lines from the poem, "The Present Crisis,'' by James Russell Lowell: "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide / In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side . . .'' Dr. King did decide for the good, and the measure of his greatness is that his Nation thereupon did likewise.

By Public Law 98 - 144, the third Monday in January of each year has been designated as a public holiday in honor of the "Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.''

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America , by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States , do hereby proclaim Monday, January 19, 1987 , as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this 9th day of January, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-seven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and eleventh.

Watch the video: Luther und die Nation - Die Deutschen Staffel 1 - ZDF


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