Although Martin Luther King had a strong religious background, it was Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays that influenced King’s decision to become a minister and serve society. King decided while completing his Ph. D. requirements to return to the South and accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, after the well-publicized Montgomery bus boycott, King and other southern black ministers created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As SCLC’s president, King emphasized the goal of black voting rights. In 1959, he toured India and studied Gandhian non-violent strategies. At the end of 1959, he resigned from Dexter and returned to Atlanta where the SCLC headquarters was located and where he also could assist his father as pastor of Ebenezer.
Although King is increasingly thought to be THE Black leader of his time, King tried not to gain too much attention after the Montgomery boycott ended. While King moved cautiously, southern black college students organized sit-in protests during the 1960’s. King sympathized with the student movement and spoke at the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960, but he was soon criticized by SNCC activists who were determined be independent from King. Conflicts between King and younger militants were also evident when both SCLC and SNCC assisted the Albany (Georgia) Movement’s campaign of mass protests during December of 1961 and the summer of 1962.
King did not achieve many of his objectives in Albany and recognized the need to organize a successful protest campaign separate from the SNCC. During the spring of 1963, King and his staff guided mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. Clashes between black demonstrators and police using police dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines through the world. In June, President Kennedy reacted to the Birmingham protests and the obstinacy of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace by agreeing to push Congress for broad civil rights legislation (which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Resulting mass demonstrations in many communities came to a high point in a march on August 28, 1963, that attracted more than 250,000 protesters to Washington, D. C. During the year following the March, King’s public recognition grew as he became Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and, in December 1964, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, King was limited in resources due to divisions among blacks, and also by continued resistance he from national political leaders. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, increased his efforts to undermine King’s leadership in 1967 as urban racial violence escalated and King criticized American intervention in the Vietnam war. King began to lose much support from white liberals, and his relations with the Lyndon Johnson administration were at a low point by 1968.
On April 4, 1968, while seeking to assist a garbage workers’ strike in Memphis, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room. Although Martin Luther King was a strong leader, he was considered too controversial for his time. It wouldn’t be until later, that this man would become a visionary for all people.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
Excerpted from a sermon delivered on Feb 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.