The life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Posted by: ShareAmerica

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Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States. The third Monday in January marks Martin Luther King Day, a U.S. holiday that honors King’s legacy and challenges citizens to engage in volunteer service in their communities.

Beginning the journey

A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)
A two-story yellow house with brown shutters and wraparound porch (National Park Service)

Born on January 15, 1929, to a long line of Baptist ministers, King grew up in Atlanta at a time when Jim Crow laws made segregation and discrimination a daily reality for blacks in the South.

King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he came to view religion as a powerful catalyst for social change. He received his doctorate from Boston University’s School of Theology before returning to the South, where he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Today, King’s Atlanta birthplace is registered as a National Historical Site with the National Park Service.

Civil rights struggle in the 1950s

Martin Luther King with hand on boy's shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King with hand on boy’s shoulder at head of line of demonstrators at street (© AP Images)

King helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After the Supreme Court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws in 1956, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promoted nonviolent action for civil rights throughout the South. He was influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and traveled to India in 1959.

An iconic figure of the 1960s

King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)
King seated, looking upward through jail cell bars (National Archives)

Joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King continued to use his oratorical gifts to urge an end to segregation and legal inequality. Throughout the 1960s, he was arrested during nonviolent protests in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. While incarcerated after one such arrest, in 1963, King penned the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, outlining the moral basis for the civil rights movement. That August, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington.

King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)
King leading throng of marchers across bridge (© AP Images)

March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday because voting-rights marchers were beaten by state troopers and civilians as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The violence turned them back, but the ordeal led King to call for another, longer march (pictured) — an 87-kilometer-long, Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.

Civil rights victories

King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)
King accepting signing pen from Lyndon Johnson, seated, as others look on (© AP Images)

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in employment, public accommodations and other aspects of life. King attended the signing of the act into law (pictured). He continued to press for a law to ensure that blacks could not be denied the right to vote by discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, and, in 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

In the wake of assassination

Martin Luther King's coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King’s coffin in wagon amid throng of mourners in street (© AP Images)

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated on the balcony outside his Memphis, Tennessee, hotel room. At his funeral, thousands of mourners marched through Atlanta behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing his coffin.

In a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” King urged black Americans to continue their commitment to nonviolence, but also cautioned that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”

King’s legacy: Nonviolent protest

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King with group of people (© AP Images)

In a 1959 radio address during his visit to India, King said: “Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” His philosophy was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent action to end British rule in India. In his turn, King inspired others to change their societies through nonviolent means, from the Solidarity movement’s cracking of Soviet occupation in Poland to Nelson Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

King’s legacy: Fighting prejudice

Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King speaking at 1963 March on Washington (© AP Images)

During the 1963 March on Washington, King declared that all people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The King Center in Atlanta is a living memorial to King’s vision of a free and equal world dedicated to expanding opportunity, fighting racism and ending all forms of discrimination.

King’s legacy: Pursuing social justice

Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)
Martin Luther King in shirt sleeves, gesturing dramatically while speaking from the pulpit (© AP Images)

The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is home to the King Papers Project, a comprehensive collection of all of King’s speeches, correspondence and other writings. The institute is also involved with the Liberation Curriculum Initiative and the Gandhi-King Community, both of which use King’s life and ideas to connect social activists around the world working to promote human rights.

King’s legacy: Service to others

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama paint Martin Luther King Jr. quotes as part of a volunteer community service project. (© AP Images)

In the U.S., Martin Luther King Day is designated a national day of service. Americans are urged to celebrate “a day on, not a day off” in honor of King’s commitment to improving the lives of others. President Obama promotes volunteerism as a way to help meet the challenges facing our world.

Keeping the dream alive

© AP Images
A black man putting his hand on the MLK Memorial, with bowed head (© AP Images)

A national memorial to King was built near the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The memorial invites visitors to reflect on King’s life and legacy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Disobedience

Posted by: Eric A. Johnson, Public Affairs Officer

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MLKEach January, the American people pause to reflect on the life of one of our nation’s great leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  On January 20, the Embassy and all federal government offices in the United States will be closed to mark the birth of an American hero who used nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight against inequality and injustice.

In early 1963, African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama were engaged in coordinated street protests and marches in pursuit of equal civil and economic rights.  These demonstrations were held, despite a court ban on “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.”  As a leader of these demonstrations, Dr. King was arrested on April 3, 1963.  While in jail, he penned an open letter to the clergy to explain his actions.

Excerpts from his letter:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.  But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.  I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.  It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:  collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

“You are quite right in calling for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action.  Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws:  just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

“An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.  For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit.  Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade.  But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

“[The] great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is . . . [the] moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

“Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.  The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro.  Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . .  I have not said to my people:  ‘Get rid of your discontent.’  Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.  And now this approach is being termed extremist.  But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.  Was not Jesus an extremist for love:  ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’  Was not Amos an extremist for justice:  ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’  Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel:  ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’  Was not Martin Luther an extremist:  ‘Here I stand;  I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’  And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’  And Abraham Lincoln:  ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’  And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . . ’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

The entire text of Dr. King’s letter can be found online.

Striking Down DOMA: An Advancement to Human Rights

Posted by:  Doris Hernandez, Political Intern

Читати українською a speech delivered on August 16, 1967, the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that had denied equal protection under the law for legally wedded couples on the basis of sexual orientation.  Commenting on the court’s ruling, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Dr. King, saying that “despite setbacks along the way, the arc of our history on this issue has bent towards inclusion and equality, perhaps never more so than today.”

The history of DOMA recalls earlier struggles for equality in the United States, and it demonstrates how citizens even today continue to engage their government to promote and protect equal rights for all.  When DOMA was enacted in 1996, it prevented the federal government from extending the protections of over 1,000 federal laws to those same-sex couples who were legally able to marry in their respective states.  In response, activists and civic groups used all the tools available to citizens in a democratic society to press the government to ensure equal rights for all citizens.  For nearly two decades they organized education and awareness campaigns, reached out to their elected representatives through letter-writing campaigns, initiated voting campaigns to work toward changing state and local laws, conducted publicity events through the media, filed lawsuits in the courts and pursued other strategies to promote equal rights.  As a result, they helped to raise awareness about the law’s inequality, shifted public opinion, changed the legal landscape, and prepared the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling that ruled DOMA to be unconstitutional.

The success of those civic groups also illustrates how civic campaigns to defend human rights can work wherever citizens engage their governments.  In Ukraine, the U.S. Embassy helps civic organizations by providing training and support, education, and tools that empower citizens to take action to defend the rights of all Ukrainians.  The programs include support to foster civic activism, strengthen independent media, promote a more accountable judicial system, and improve the legislative process.  By strengthening democratic institutions, Ukraine’s activists are helping to create the conditions that can bring equal protection under the law and the rights that are due to all citizens.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA was not only a success for advocates and supporters of equal rights in the United States, it was a reassurance that civic activists—both in the United States and throughout the world—really can create meaningful change to protect human rights.  The process can take years, and it sometimes requires the concerted efforts of hundreds or thousands of committed citizens working at every level.  But as the DOMA ruling showed, while the arc of history is long, when citizens commit to remedying an injustice, they can indeed bend that arc toward justice.

50 States in 50 Days: Alabama – Sweet Home

Posted by: John Gregg, Visa Chief

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Growing up in Alabama, I learned about the victories of the civil rights movement in my state from an early age. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conducted some of his most famous marches here in places like Montgomery, Selma, and my hometown of Birmingham. You can visit sites from this history today among many others in a green, friendly, and sports-mad state.

Alabama Civil Rights Trail

Europeans settled Alabama in large numbers in the early 1800s. The settlers replaced the Native American population and developed an agricultural economy based on slavery. Alabama became the United States of America’s 22nd state in 1819, but seceded with several others at the start of the U.S. Civil War. The Confederacy’s first capital was in Montgomery, and even after the war, racial discrimination persisted for a long time. It took Dr. King and countless other civil rights activists to push Congress to end legal discrimination in the 1960s. Today, an entire district of Birmingham’s historic downtown is devoted to memorials of the protest era. The state’s economy is considerably more diversified that the cotton farms of the past. For instance, Birmingham has both a large steel industry and a significant medical sector, based at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville

The city of Huntsville played a key role in another aspect of America’s history: the space race. The rockets and capsules that carried American astronauts to the moon were developed there, and many have been preserved at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center along with other attractions. These include Saturn moon launch vehicles, Apollo Program command and lunar modules, and the U.S. Space Camp which attracts children from around the world. Continue reading “50 States in 50 Days: Alabama – Sweet Home”

Black History Month Highlights Accomplishments and Struggles of African Americans Part Two: From Martin Luther King Jr. to the Election of President Barack Obama

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché

Martin Luther King

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, espousing non-violent resistance to social injustice caught the attention of the nation with the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” In 1964 and 1965, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which finally gave full legal equality to African Americans throughout the United States. Tragically, King was murdered in 1968 in Memphis by a white man who opposed his efforts to bring equality to African-Americans.

Legal equality didn’t bring full social or economic equality. Since the 1960s, there has

Barak Obama

been slow progress as more African-Americans enter the middle class, become better educated, and achieve prominent careers in all areas of society. In recent years, more young Americans have identified themselves as multiracial or mixed-race on census forms, indicating a softening of the rigid categories of black and white that had long defined American society. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African-American president was a major milestone, demonstrating that the country’s mindset had profoundly changed. However, major struggles remain for many in the African-American community, who suffer from significantly higher rates of unemployment and poverty compared to whites. Moreover, some urban communities face entrenched cycles of poverty, drug use, and violence.

Black History month is a time to examine this long and mixed story in all of its complexity. It’s the tale of a resourceful and spiritually strong people who have been striving for hundreds of years for equality, and to realize the goal set forth by Abraham Lincoln, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Black History Month Highlights Accomplishments and Struggles of African Americans Part One: From slavery to the first victory of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché

Carter Woodson

With February drawing to a close, I would like to reflect on its significance for Americans as Black History Month, a time when we highlight the accomplishments and struggles of African-Americans, who make up 13% of the U.S. population.  African-American history began with a long period of involuntary servitude, followed by struggle, progress, and – two years ago – the historic election of the first African-American President Barack Obama in 2008.

Carter G. Woodson, a noted historian and son of former slaves, conceived of the idea of a Black History Week in 1926, choosing February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This commemoration was later expanded to the whole month. Continue reading “Black History Month Highlights Accomplishments and Struggles of African Americans Part One: From slavery to the first victory of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954”

Exclusive Interview with Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Posted by: Daniel Cisek, Deputy Press Attaché 

Mary Wilson at the Ambassador's residence

Listen to Mary Wilson talking about Motown, the civil rights movement, her collection of gowns from the Supremes, and the “school of life” of a pop music star in an exclusive interview she gave to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Feb. 3. 

Mary Wilson wrote the following about her visit to Kyiv:

“I have had the most fabulous time here in the Ukraine. We were accepted so very well at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, here in Kiev. The Ambassador’s wife, Mariella, was so very gracious and came on stage with me to sing “Stop …In The Name Of Love”; actually it was in her living room!” -Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Mary Wilson and Mariella Tefft singing at the residence

Come see an interactive, multimedia exhibit at Ukrainsky Dim that tells the rags-to-riches tale of the most successful group of the 1960s, The Supremes! Amidst the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the Motown sound emerged and grew to characterize the time. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn more about this era. The exhibit is FREE and open daily from Feb 4 to 14, 11AM – 7PM.