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The early backgrounds of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Unlike some other giants in the tradition of black American protest, Martin Luther King, Jr., is not properly described as a self-made man. To the contrary, it might seem that King was destined from birth for eminence as a minister and activist.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr.

33c Martin Luther King Jr. approved stamp art by Keith Birdsong, c. 1999
Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech was commemorated in the Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century stamp series issued at the end of the twentieth century. A trace of brightness on the horizon represents hope, while King wears the March’s official badge.
Loan from the United States Postal Service, Postmaster General's Collection

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream for the Future

The greatest explanation of the American dream is Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty years ago, John Lewis, the civil-rights activist and current congressman from Georgia, was living in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, in a studio on Twenty-first Street. On April 4, 1967, he rode uptown to Riverside Church, on the Upper West Side, to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver a speech about Vietnam. Lewis knew that King would declare his opposition to the war, but the intensity and eloquence of King’s speech, titled “,” stunned him. What King offered was a wholesale denunciation of American foreign and domestic policy. He had never spoken with such fathoms of unrestraint. For Lewis, the force of the speech eclipsed that of all the others that King gave, including his most famous.

On August 28, 1963, delivering the culminating address at the greatest mass-protest demonstration in U.S. history, Martin Luther King, Jr., summoned all of his listeners to think anew about the heritage and promise of America. Speaking in the “symbolic shadow” of the most revered American of all, he ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to remind them of the centennial year of Emancipation.

Two strong leaders from this era were Martin Luther King Jr.

Two people who faced great adversity in their lives were Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 67-68. In another sermon, King remarked that in the seminal Brown v. Board ruling, the Court had “parted the Red Sea.” Ibid., p. 82; see also Papers of MLK, Vol. 3, p. 261.

Papers of MLK, Vol. 1, pp. 362–363. A slightly different account appears in Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), pp. 4–5.

In his letter he was referring to the clergymen, these were men of God; Martin Luther King Jr.
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Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination hit the public.

Clayborne Carson, “Introduction,” The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992–), Vol. 1, note 98. Cited hereafter as Papers of MLK.

The impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.

See, for example, ibid., pp. 3–7, and Drew Hansen, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 222–226.

Samuel Proctor, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Michael Eric Dyson, for instance, lauds King as the greatest American ever, especially by virtue of the relative radicalism of his last few years, which Dyson regards as a bold departure from King’s earlier civil rights vision. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free Press, 2000), pp. ix–x, 1–29, 78–100.

33c Martin Luther King Jr. stamp, 1999

This was King’s frequent self-description; see, for example, his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), pp. 297–298.

Among these people, one of them is Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great champion of great principles, laboring mightily and in the end sacrificing his life to advance the cause of equal rights for all. Among the generations succeeding him, he is almost universally revered, accorded a virtually unchallengeable authority as a source of wisdom in matters of race, equality, and rights. Amid such reverence, to achieve a clear-sighted, fair-minded judgment of King’s political thought is no easy task. For that same reason, however, to achieve such a judgment is for us a moral and civic imperative.

Historic Figure: Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are numerous biographies of King. My account of King’s life relies on Carson, “Introduction” to Papers of MLK; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Random House, 1986); and Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).

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