Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the pre-eminent non-violent leader of the black civil rights movement, came to Chicago in 1966 in an attempt to confront de facto segregation in the urban North. King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a powerful Baptist minister. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, he studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University. After receiving his graduate degree, he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he emerged as a civil rights leader.

King saw religion as a vehicle for effective social change, and merged his religious views with those of non-violent predecessors such as Mohandas Gandhi to develop his own non-violent method of protest. He established six principles of non-violence to which he encouraged his adherents to aspire [see below]. In King’s view, non-violence was “the sword that heals” rather than destroys, and he used non-violence to expose the absurdity of violence.

Employing non-violence, King was a popular civil rights leader long before coming to Chicago. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and became its founding president. In that role, he brought civil rights to the forefront of national attention with campaigns against segregation in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida. At a 1963 rally in Washington, D.C., King spoke to over 200,000 people and presented his dream for a color-blind society. He was highly successful in showing the immorality of segregation in the South and enlisting support for the movement throughout the country.

Having been extremely successful in combating Jim Crow practices in the South, King turned to the North with the SCLC’s People-to-People tour in 1965, in an attempt to assess the extent of segregation in Northern cities and choose a location for a new campaign. He settled on Chicago because of the support of the established local movement, Chicago’s political landscape, and the fact that practitioners of non-violent direct action like James Bevel and Bernard LaFayette were already organizing in Chicago. After enlisting partners in Chicago, King moved into an apartment at 1550 South Hamlin Avenue in North Lawndale, in Chicago’s West Side. Although he only lived part time in Chicago, King often took to the streets of his new neighborhood to meet its inhabitants and understand the conditions of Chicago’s slums.

The leaders of the Chicago Freedom Movement collectively decided that ending slums should be their initial focus. In February 1966, King announced that the Chicago movement had assumed “trusteeship” of an apartment building after learning about a sick baby who had been living in an unheated, run-down apartment buildings at 1321 South Homan Avenue. On July 10, 1966, King officially launched his direct action campaign to end slums at a large rally at Soldier Field, which was attended by over thirty-thousand people. The campaign continued with a series of marches through predominately white communities such as Gage Park and Chicago Lawn. These marches infuriated many inhabitants in those neighborhoods. During a march through Marquette Park and Chicago Lawn, a rock “as big as [a] fist” [Ralph 123] was thrown at King’s head and knocked him over.

After several more marches, and plans by several in the movement to march through the hard-nosed nearby city of Cicero, the site of a fierce race riot in 1951, King agreed to attend a negotiating summit organized by the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race (CCRR). After two weeks of discussion of the problem of Chicago’s ghettoes, and commitments on behalf of Chicago’s government, religious, business, and real estate leaders, King and other protest leaders called for an end to the tense housing marches.

After the Chicago Freedom Movement, the rise of Black militants weakened King’s power in the civil rights movement. While he would never again achieve the success he had seen before his move to Chicago, he continued to organize civil rights campaigns, including the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68. On April 3, 1968, while working with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King was shot and killed by white segregationist James Earl Ray.

The Six Principles of Kingian Non-Violence

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. First it must be emphasized that nonviolence is not a method for cowards; it does resist.

2. The beloved community is the goal. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

3. Attack the forces of evil not the people during evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil.

4. Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

5. Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.

6. The universe is on the side of justice. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship.

--SJB