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On Monday, January 16, Americans will celebrate Martin Luther King Day to honor the clergyman who spearheaded the African-American Civil Rights Movement. It is largely thanks to his efforts that America is today, the land of opportunity for all.
King was born in Atlanta, GA, where racial discrimination was a way of life. Everything, from schools, restaurants, transportation, beaches, bathrooms and almost all public venues, were segregated by race. Not knowing any better, he accepted it as the way of life. It was only when King went to work in the tobacco fields in Hartford, CT, in the summer of 1944, that the then 15-year-old realized race relations were very different in the Northern States. In a letter to his father, the young boy expressed his astonishment, writing, "After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.” Though it took a few years before King began the battle to bring similar equality to the Southern States, the seed was planted.
In 1954, after earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston University, King accepted an offer to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. His foray into activism began in December 1955, when he led a group to protest the arrest of NAACP activist Rosa Parks for refusing to vacate her bus seat to a white man.
King urged all African Americans in Montgomery to boycott public transport. Despite having no other means of getting around, they accepted the challenge, not for a day or month, but for over a year! As the news spread, African Americans from other states joined in, leading to the first ever united fight against racial discrimination. In 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States finally succumbed to their demands and passed legislation to abolish segregation on public buses and trains.
Buoyed by the success, King embarked on an even bigger mission – to eradicate racial prejudice altogether. He spent the next ten years encouraging people to fight against the injustice in a peaceful manner, with sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. The superb orator inspired millions of Americans with his motivational speeches. The most memorable one was delivered on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial following the “March on Washington,” staged to support the Civil Rights bill. In the now famous 'I have a dream' speech, MLK spoke eloquently about his desire to live in a country where everyone was equal.
On July 2, 1964, his wish was partially granted with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed African Americans to cast votes was another step in the right direction. The 1968 Fair Housing Act that prohibited any discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of property was the last missing piece of the puzzle. Finally, all Americans had equal rights! Unfortunately, King did not live to see his dream fully realized. On April 4, 1968, the 39-year-old activist was assassinated in Memphis, TN, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers’ strike.
This incredible man, who dedicated his life to achieving equality for all, showed the world that dreams, no matter how impossible, can come true. As you celebrate the holiday, reflect on the one thing that you want the most, and start taking action to make it come true.