These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.
This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.
Martin Luther King Junior was an American minister who became the spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955 until his assassination in 1968. He is a hero and inspiration for the recent Black Lives Matter campaign and was instrumental in combating racial inequality in the United States.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 15th January 1929, he was originally named Michael, although his father, Reverend Michael King Snr, claimed this to be a mistake. Apparently, his mother, Alberta, gave him the name Michael, which a physician entered onto the birth certificate without consulting the father. Nonetheless, after a trip to Germany in 1934, where he learnt about the German professor Martin Luther, Michael King Snr began referring to himself as Martin Luther King and his son as Martin Luther King Jr. On 23rd July 1957, Junior’s name was officially changed on his birth certificate.
King and his two younger siblings grew up listening to bible stories and lived in harmony with black and white children until they began school. Only then did King notice the difference in treatment between black and white. King had no choice but to attend Younge Street Elementary School for black children and was no longer allowed to play with his white friends. His father refused to accept segregation laws and led protests and marches in Atlanta.
King Jr began to resent racial humiliation during his teenage years. He had grown up memorising bible passages and hymns, but his experiences as a black boy made him question the authenticity of Christian beliefs. Fortunately, his mentor at college, a Baptist minister, who also became his spiritual mentor, encouraged King to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from college, King enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.
In 1951, King began his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University, and the following year he was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whilst studying in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, who he later married on 18th June 1953. Over the next decade, the Kings became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955–2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963).
In 1955, a schoolgirl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat for a white man in protest of the enforced racial segregation laws. King, who was in the Birmingham African-American community, looked into the case, but it was eventually dismissed on account of Colvin being a minor. Later that year, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat. As a result, King led a boycott of the buses in Montgomery, which lasted 385 days until King’s house was bombed. Although King was arrested during the campaign, it resulted in the end of racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.
In 1957, King and some other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which aimed to encourage black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the name of civil rights. The conference was inspired by Reverend Billy Graham, who, despite being white, had befriended King and shared his sentiments. During the SCLC’s 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom demonstration in Washington, King made his first public speech to the nation.
The following year, King published his book Stride Toward Freedom. During a book signing in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener. He narrowly escaped death with the help of surgeons and was hospitalised for three weeks. The attack was not deemed a racial offence as the perpetrator was a mentally ill black woman called Izola Curry, who believed King was conspiring against her with a group of Communists.
After recovering from his near-death experience, King returned to the fore of the Civil Rights movement and led several non-violent protests and marches. These aimed to provide black citizens with the right to vote and provide labour and civil rights, most of which were granted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King and the SCLC involved themselves with uprisings around the country. In Albany, Georgia, King was arrested at a peaceful demonstration in 1961 and again in 1962. The following year in Birmingham, Alabama, King was arrested again for campaigning against racial segregation and economic injustice. This was his 13th arrest, and by the end of his life, he had been arrested 29 times. Nonetheless, he remained undeterred and joined or organised protests in New York and Florida in 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous “I have a dream” speech took place during the March on Washington in 1963. The march demanded the removal of racial segregation in schools, a law to prevent racial discrimination at work, a minimum wage for black workers and protection from police brutality, amongst other things. King’s speech has since been listed as one of the finest speeches in the history of America.
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
King continued to organise marches, speeches and protests and, in 1967, involved the SCLC with the protests against the war in Vietnam. Not only was King concerned about black rights, but he also spoke strongly against the USA’s involvement in the war in general. Following this, in 1968, King organised the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address the issues of economic justice across America. By then, some circumstances had improved for black people, and King emphasised that black and white were equal and everyone deserved the same rights.
On 29th March 1968, Martin Luther King Jr went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support the strike of black sanitary public works employees, where he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The following evening, whilst standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel where he was staying, Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot in the face by James Earl Ray. Despite being rushed to hospital, King passed away an hour later. His death resulted in mass riots in cities across America until, on 7th April, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for the Civil Rights leader. Just days after his death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed to prohibit discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions based on race, religion, or national origin.
Despite dying at the age of 39, Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and legacy changed the lives of black people forever. The struggle was by no means over, but black and white were beginning to live in harmony. His dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” was finally coming true.
Araminta “Minty” Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but later escaped and became one of the leaders of the “Underground Railroad”, which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It is not certain when Harriet and her eight siblings were born, but it is estimated to be between 1815 and 1825. Plantation owners owned her parents, Harriet “Rit” Green and Ben Ross, and some of their children were sold to other plantations in other states.
Physical violence was a common occurrence for Harriet and her family, particularly in the form of whipping. Harriet carried scars on her back for the rest of her life. On one occasion, when she refused to do something, Harriet’s overseer threw a two-pound weight at her head, knocking her out. This led to seizures, headaches and narcolepsy, which Harriet suffered for the rest of her life. On the other hand, the seizures caused her to fall into intense dream states, which she believed to be religious experiences.
Harriet’s father became a free man at the age of 45, but having nowhere to go, he remained working on the plantation in slave-like conditions. He did not feel he could leave his family, who remained in the plantation owner’s possession. Even when Harriet married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, she was not released from slavery.
In 1849, Harriet made her first trip from South to North following a network known as the Underground Railroad. Following the death of her owner, Harriet decided to escape from slavery and run away to Philadelphia. On 17th September 1849, Harriet and two of her brothers began the long journey, but after they learnt that Harriet was being sought in the papers for a reward of $300, the boys had second thoughts and returned home. Harriet’s husband had also refused to go with her and later took on a new wife.
Continuing alone, Harriet travelled almost 90 miles to Philadelphia, where she finally entered a Free State. “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But this was not the end of Harriet’s story. No sooner had she arrived, she returned to the South to help more than 300 people escape from slavery. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet made 19 trips, the first being to help her niece Kessiah and family flee from the harsh conditions.
Things became harder when the Fugitive Slave Law came into practice, stating that escaped slaves could be arrested and returned to their owners even if they were living in Free States. Nonetheless, Harriet persevered, rerouting the Underground Railroad to Canada.
Harriet had a prophetic vision about the abolitionist John Brown, who she later met in 1858. Although Brown advocated violence, he ultimately wanted the same result as Harriet, and they began working together. Unfortunately, Brown was arrested and executed, for which Harriet praised him as a martyr.
During the Civil War, Harriet entered the Union Army as a cook and nurse, although she ended up working as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the war, which resulted in the liberation of over 700 slaves in South Carolina.
In 1859, Harriet bought a small piece of land near Auburn, New York, from fellow abolitionist Senator William H. Seward. Ten years later, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis and, in 1874, adopted a baby girl called Gertie. They lived happily in their own home, despite never being financially secure. Friends and supporters endeavoured to raise money for her. One fan, Sarah H. Bradford, wrote Harriet’s biography and gave her all the proceeds.
In 1903, Harriet opened her land to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, five years later, opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Sadly, Harriet’s health was not good. The physical abuse received as a slave caused her severe problems, resulting in brain surgery to alleviate some of the pain. She died in 1917 from pneumonia and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery with military honours.
At the end of the 20th century, Harriet Tubman was named one of the most famous civilians in American History, and she will soon be the face of the new $20 bill. Yet, outside of America, Harriet remains unknown, although, in 2019, a film was released titled Harriet, which documents her life as a conductor of the Underground Railroad. A Woman Called Moses from 1978 also documents her career.
To be continued…