Prelude to Black History Month, Part One: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché, and Heather Fabrikant, Deputy Cultural Attaché

During this week, we mark the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, one of the most important figures in American history. We’re also looking forward to February, which is Black History Month in the United States, a time to highlight the many contributions that African-Americans have made to our country. We will also be welcoming Mary Wilson to Kyiv in February. An original member of the legendary Motown group The Supremes, Mary Wilson’s life and music during the 1960s were connected to the struggle for civil rights led by Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister who led the struggle for equal rights for African Americans until his assassination in 1968. He espoused the principle of nonviolent resistance to injustice and oppression, in keeping with his Christian beliefs. He led the March on Washington in 1963, when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. During the speech he spoke perhaps his best-known words: “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 the content of their character.” In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming its youngest recipient.  His leadership of the civil rights movement culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, he traveled to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers, where he was murdered by an assassin’s bullet, bringing a tragic end to his brave struggle for equality.

Did you know about the connection between the philosophy of Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King? King was strongly influenced by the successful struggle of Mahatma Gandhi in India to end British colonial rule by use of nonviolent resistance. King traveled to India in 1959 to meet with followers of Gandhi who were still active. In turn, Gandhi developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance after reading the works of Leo Tolstoy, especially the book “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” The two men shared a lengthy correspondence during the final years of Tolstoy’s life. Thus it’s quite accurate to say that Martin Luther King’s own strategy of nonviolent social protest can be traced directly to one of the towering cultural figures of Eastern Europe.  We can also see the continuing influence of King, Tolstoy, and Gandhi in recent events such as the mass movement of nonviolent resistance that led to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

First Lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia paint during a service project in the cafeteria of Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., Jan. 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day is held on the third Monday of January. President Obama issued a proclamation in honor of the day, stating the following: “Dr. King guided us toward a mountaintop on which all Americans — regardless of skin color — could live together in mutual respect and brotherhood. His bold leadership and prophetic eloquence united people of all backgrounds in a noble quest for freedom and basic civil rights.” This year was the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the day as a federal holiday. It is now observed as a day of service; President Obama and his family marked the day by volunteering at a mentoring project at a middle school in Washington, D.C.

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