And yes I do mean Michael. That was the original name of both father and son. The father changed his name to Martin, in honor of Martin Luther, when he took over the ministry of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and his son followed suit.
Back then, slavery may have ended, but segregation was still very much in evidence. Black people were still looked down upon by many white people. Adults were referred to not by their name or in any other respectful way, but 'boy', 'girl', or worse still that 'N.....' word that I am not even going to write here.
The segregation was not only a determined separation of the 'colored', but also used as a way of demeaning them. We saw a photo of a restaurant which blacks were allowed to use, but the area they had to eat in was around the back of the toilet block. This, and much worse, was the culture that MLK (we'll call him that from now on) was born into.
We visited the house where he was born. With the help of some of his family. It has been restored as closely as possible to how it would have been when he was a child.
We also visited the nearby MLK centre, opposite his father's Ebenezer Baptist church. The centre has information about his life, and is where he is laid to rest.
So what of MLK? He had a good education and like his father, became a Baptist Minister. His first church of his own was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Whether his life and the Civil Rights Campaign would have been different had he been sent somewhere else, we'll never know, but as it was, his life was about to take a very different course.
Because Montgomery was where Rosa Parks made her stance against segregation which led to a protest that was to kickstart the Civil Right Campaign. I'll talk about her and the protest in a later posting; for now I'll stick to what it meant for MLK.
As the protest gathered pace, MLK was chosen to lead it. He preached to the people to have them keep faith with the protest, but most importantly, he constantly pushed the need to make this a non violent campaign.
He started talking about Civil Rights in Montgomery because of this protest, but he continued way beyond that. In 1957 he helped to establish and run the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in 1959 he visited India to study Ghandi's teachings, becoming further committed to the principles of non violent protest.
His campaigning took him across the USA. Everywhere he went he called for an end to the racial discrimination and for equality. He joined with other campaign groups to focus their efforts. But all the while he insisted on non violent methods. The Greensboro sit-in protests of 1960 were an excellent example of this in practice, leading to the ending of segregation in nearly thirty lunch counters.
In early 1963 he was arrested and jailed for his participation in a protest in Birmingham Alabama. Undeterred, in August of the same year he led a march on Washington. Most people have heard of MLK's compelling speeches and this is where he delivered his most famous 'I have a dream' speech, which has become one of those often quoted phrases, even if people don't actually know any of the rest of what he said.
Of course despite his own commitment to non violence, many of his opponents had no qualms about using violence in reply. As well as all of the brutal attacks and killings of black people generally, and of some white people who supported the campaign, MLK had threats against him personally. His home and church were bombed on a number of occasions.
One time he was signing copies of his book in a bookstore when a woman stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. They told him afterwards that had he sneezed before he was patched up then it would have killed him. He later commented that he had received a letter from a little white girl who said that she had heard about this and was very happy that he didn't sneeze.
In 1964, partly as a result of the campaigns led by MLK, but also in part a reaction to enact the wishes of the recently assassinated President Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act was passed which effectively required an end to segregation in publicly owned or run facilities. In the same year, MLK was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Life wasn't always a bed of roses though. In the coming years MLK faced criticism from other Afro-American leaders and he tired of the constant threats of imprisonment and personal attacks. But he persevered.
Then in early 1968 he travelled to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers where he delivered his 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' speech on 3 April. This speech, which was to be his last, was almost prophetic. It was a long speech, but I am going to include the very last section here:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. 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! And 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 next day, 4 April 1968, on the balcony outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, MLK was shot dead. He was 39 years old.
His funeral service in Atlanta was attended by around 1300 people, but his body was carried in a simple wooden cart pulled by mules. They used another of his speeches, the final sermon that he had given at the Ebenezer Baptist Church only a couple of months earlier on 4 February.
Was he a great man? I don't know. There are suggestions that when he was watched by the government he was found to have been an adulterer and perhaps other failings. But he was a good orator for an important cause and he was determined to keep violence out of his side of the campaign. He was steadfast in his efforts despite knowing the danger that it clearly put him in. Does that make him great? He is certainly a hero to many black people.
What I do know is that he did great things. Without his belief and encouragement, the Civil Rights Campaign may not have properly got off the ground for many more years. And had he allowed his side to resort to violence, he would have given his opponents the ability to just call them thugs and criminals and undermine their efforts. As it was, his tireless work, and perhaps his own assassination, very probably sped up the changes that did eventually happen.