Surprising Facts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964
- King’s birth name was not Martin Luther. When he was born in 1929, King was named after his father, Michael King. When King’s father attended a conference for Baptist ministers in Germany, he decided to legally change his name to Martin Luther, and his son’s name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr.
- Despite growing up during the Depression, King said that his family had enough money. His father, Martin Luther King Sr. was a pastor and his congregation respected him so much that they refused to see their leader’s family go hungry.
- Although he grew up in the South, King didn’t experience violent racial prejudice. Atlanta offered education for African Americans through black colleges. There were also social bonds formed at church where his father preached. Though blacks and whites didn’t attend the same schools or share seats on buses, Atlanta was one of the few places in the South where both blacks and whites could dream about a better life.
- King’s father taught him to talk back to whites. One day when the two of them were walking in the street, a policeman called King’s father “boy.” His father turned to the policeman, pointed at his son and said “No, that’s a boy.”
- Martin Luther King Jr. was smart but didn’t get good grades in school. Even in college, King preferred going parties and dances instead of doing homework.
- King worried about what white people thought of him. When he decided to attend a seminary in the North, King had white classmates. King admitted that “I was well aware of the typical white stereotype, and for a while I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with it.” The stereotype said that blacks were lazy, stupid, and unclean. At the seminary King’s grades improved and he dressed well. Some people said he was vain.
- Though he was ahead of his time in other ways, King thought a woman’s place was in the home. When he met his future wife Coretta Scott at school, he made it clear that he wanted her to raise their kids and keep house even though she was smart and politically active in college.
In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for taking part in a civil rights protest. African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama had few rights. They were not allowed to enter certain stores and the police would not investigate the bombings of African-Americans’ homes or churches by angry whites. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a non-violent protest in this city to draw attention to the injustices that blacks experienced.
While in jail, he wrote a letter to white Alabama pastors who thought that legalized separation of blacks and whites, known as segregation, should not be protested. They felt that the courts should decide whether the laws of segregation were just. In his letter, King explains that there are two types of laws: just (fair) laws, and unjust (unfair) laws.
He explains that a just law is one that all citizens have a vote on and must follow. An unjust law is a law that only a minority needs to follow whether they can vote on it or not. For example, he was arrested for parading without a permit. While he sees nothing wrong with a requirement for parade permits, he points out that this law was being used to squash the right of African-Americans to protest for equal rights.
King does not, however, advocate that African-Americans break laws just for the fun of it or out of bitterness for their poor treatment. Instead, they would have to be willing to accept the consequences of their actions. He writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” King was accepting the penalty of an unjust law by calmly sitting in jail for his part in the protest.
History, King points out, is full of unjust laws. For example, Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews was legal for a long time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that Hitler’s laws were unjust. In the same way, segregation laws would be viewed as unjust someday. Thanks to King and other civil rights leaders, the injustice of segregation is obvious to Americans today.
Religion in America has been used to justify unforgivable actions against others. The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one example. In the nineteenth-century, Americans believed that it was their manifest destiny, or God-given duty, to spread their society across the continent. Americans’ godly mission, however, did not require them to care about the Native Americans who were displaced from their lands as whites moved closer. When President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act with the approval of Congress in 1830, Native Americans were forced to move to land west of the Mississippi. In 1838, the Cherokee Indians journeyed west. Baptist missionary Evan Jones traveled with the Cherokee and described the experience: “The Cherokees are nearly all prisoners…In Georgia, especially, multitudes were allowed no time to take anything with them, except the clothes they had on. Well-furnished houses were left a prey to plunderers, who, like hungry wolves, follow in the train of the captors.” Although the U.S. believed that manifest destiny justified the seizing of land, this action led to the unjust treatment of Native Americans.
Despite the negative consequences of manifest destiny, religion in American has also served as a motivation for reform. Throughout our nation’s history, churches promoted various social reforms. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, African Americans found leaders for the civil rights movement in their congregations. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott during which African Americans refused to ride buses after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person. He also organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest the treatment of blacks in white society. Today African American church leaders continue to fight for social justice. Reverend Jesse Jackson consistently brings media attention to issues of civil rights and other causes like welfare reform. Both King and Jackson demonstrate that religion can be a positive force when it is used to uproot injustices in society.