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Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968: He Used Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience to Gain Equal Rights for Black Americans


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PEOPLE IN AMERICA - a program in Special English on the Voice of America.

Today, Warren Scheer and Shep O'Neal begin the story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior.

It all started on a bus. A black woman was returning home from work after a long hard day. She sat near the front of the bus because she was tired and her legs hurt. But the bus belonged to the city of Montgomery in the southern state of Alabama. And the year was nineteen fifty-five.

In those days, black people could sit only in the back of the bus. So the driver ordered the woman to give up her seat. But the woman refused, and she was arrested.

Incidents like this had happened before. But no one had ever spoken out against such treatment of blacks. This time, however, a young black preacher organized a protest. He called on all black citizens to stop riding the buses in Montgomery until the laws were changed. The name of the young preacher was Martin Luther King. He led the protest movement to end injustice in the Montgomery city bus system. The protest became known as the Montgomery bus boycott. The protest marked the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States.

This is the story of Martin Luther King, and his part in the early days of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in nineteen twenty-nine. He was born into a religious family.

Martin's father was a preacher at a Baptist church. And his mother came from a family with strong ties to the Baptist religion.

In nineteen twenty-nine, Atlanta was one of the wealthiest cities in the southern part of the United States. Many black families came to the city in search of a better life. There was less racial tension between blacks and whites in Atlanta than in other southern cities. But Atlanta still had laws designed to keep black people separate from whites.

The laws of racial separation existed all over the southern part of the United States. They forced blacks to attend separate schools and live in separate areas of a city. Blacks did not have the same rights as white people, and were often poorer and less educated.

Martin Luther King did not know about racial separation when he was young. But as he grew older, he soon saw that blacks were not treated equally.

One day Martin and his father went out to buy shoes. They entered a shoe store owned by a white businessman.

The businessman sold shoes to all people. But he had a rule that blacks could not buy shoes in the front part of the store. He ordered Martin's father to obey the rule. Martin never forgot his father's angry answer:

"If you do not sell shoes to black people at the front of the store, you will not sell shoes to us at all. "

Such incidents, however, were rare during Martin's early life. Instead, he led the life of a normal boy. Martin liked to learn, and he passed through school very quickly. He was only fifteen when he was ready to enter the university. The university, called Morehouse College, was in Atlanta. Morehouse College was one of the few universities in the South where black students could study.

It was at the university that Martin decided to become a preacher. At the same time, he also discovered he had a gift for public speaking.

He soon was able to test his gifts. One Sunday, Martin's father asked him to preach at his church. When Martin arrived, the church members were surprised to see such a young man getting ready to speak to them. But they were more surprised to find themselves deeply moved by the words of young Martin Luther King.

A church member once described him: "The boy seemed much older than his years. He understood life and its problems."

Martin seemed wise to others because of his studies at the university. He carefully read the works of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader and thinker. Martin also studied the books of the American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. Both men wrote about ways to fight injustice. Gandhi had led his people to freedom by peacefully refusing to obey unjust laws. He taught his followers never to use violence. Thoreau also urged people to disobey laws that were not just, and to be willing to go to prison for their beliefs.

As he studied, Martin thought he had found the answer for his people. The ideas of Gandhi and Thoreau -- non-violence and civil disobedience -- could be used together to win equal rights for black Americans. Martin knew, then, that his decision to become a preacher was right. He believed that as a preacher he could spread the ideas of Gandhi and Thoreau. Years later he said:

"My university studies gave me the basic truths I now believe. I discovered the idea of humanity's oneness and the dignity and value of all human character. "

Martin continued his studies in religion for almost ten years. When he was twenty-two, he moved north to study in Boston.

It was in Boston that Martin met Coretta Scott, the woman who later became his wife.

Martin always had been very popular with the girls in his hometown. His brother once said that Martin "never had one girlfriend for more than a year".

But Martin felt Coretta Scott was different. The first time he saw her Martin said: "You have everything I have ever wanted in a wife. "

Coretta was surprised at his words. But she felt that Martin was serious and honest. A short time later, they were married. Martin soon finished his studies in Boston, and received a doctorate degree in religion. The young preacher then was offered a job at a church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Martin Luther King and his wife were happy in Montgomery. Their first child was born. Martin's work at the church was going well. He became involved in a number of activities to help the poor. And the members of his church spoke highly of their new preacher. Coretta remembered their life as simple and without worries.

Then, a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for sitting in the white part of a Montgomery city bus. And Martin Luther King organized a protest against the Montgomery bus system.

Martin believed it was very important for the bus boycott to succeed -- more important even than his own life.  But he worried about his ability to lead such an important campaign. He was only twenty-six years old. He prayed to God for help and believed that God answered his prayers.

Martin knew that his actions and his speeches would be important for the civil rights movement. But he was faced with a serious problem. He asked: "How can I make my people militant enough to win our goals, while keeping peace within the movement. "

The answer came to him from the teachings of Gandhi and Thoreau. In his first speech as a leader, Martin said:

"We must seek to show we are right through peaceful, not violent means. Love must be the ideal guiding our actions. If we protest bravely, and yet with pride and Christian love, then future historians will say:

"There lived a great people, a black people, who gave new hope to civilization. "

With these words, a new movement was born. It was non-violent and peaceful. But victory was far from sure, and many difficult days of struggle lay ahead.

You have been listening to the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Your narrators were Warren Scheer and Shep O'Neal. Our program was written by William Rodgers. Listen again next week at this time, when we will complete the story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior.


Voice of America Special English
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Source: Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968: He Used Non-Violence and Civil Disobedience to Gain Equal Rights for Black Americans
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