Baptist minister, humanitarian and iconic Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the most recognizable and lauded figures in American history. Numerous books, movies, and songs have been written about his life, teachings, and accomplishments. School children are able to quote from his most famous speeches. Special community events are held around the country every year on January 16, the day set aside to pay tribute to him, MLK Day, Dr. King’s birthday.
The challenge with researching such a celebrated figure is that for many of us, what we know about Dr. King can be wrapped up in our own experiences with film or literary depictions, as well as biases and assumptions that are inevitable from our vantage point in history. Which is a good thing, because thanks to Dr. King’s accomplishments, it can be hard for us to imagine what life was really like before the Civil Rights Movement.
But paradoxically, that can also make it hard for us to fully comprehend the magnitude of his accomplishments during that tempestuous era. We know him as a hero, but how was he perceived in the 1950s, when he was just emerging as a Civil Rights leader? How was he perceived by friends and family, who remembered him as a youth, seeing him rise to international fame as a philosopher and proponent of passive resistance?
Primary source materials – such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Black Historical Newspapers – offer invaluable insight into understanding Dr. King from the perspective of his time and his peers, as well as insight into the man who became the hero.
Here is a sampling of various newspaper articles from the earliest days of Dr. King’s activism and his rise as a champion of civil rights in the mid-1950s, showcasing some of the different ways he was portrayed and depicted in the media:
- A brief article in the June 18, 1955 issue of the Atlanta Daily World announces: “At the young age of twenty-six, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Ph.D degree by Boston University on June 5, 1955, in the field of Systematic Theology.” His academic credentials are highlighted, as well as his position as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. But there is no indication of the transformative events that would be unfolding six months later.
The first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the U.S., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, began December 5, 1955, launching the American Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century. It started on the day of Rosa Parks’ court hearing for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The boycott lasted 381 days and was led by the young pastor who had recently been awarded his Ph.D.
- While the Montgomery Bus Boycott is an iconic example of peaceful protest, Dr. King is referred to as a “militant Baptist minister” in an article from the January 31, 1956 issue of the Atlanta Daily World. The headline – “DR. M.L. KING, JR. ARRESTED, RELEASED ON SPEEDING CHARGE” only mentions in a sub-sub headline that Dr. King’s house had been fire bombed and extensively damaged the night prior.
According to the article, police trailed Dr. King for 10 blocks before charging him with driving 30 miles per hour in 25mph zone. “Crowds swarmed the scene where police held the militant pastor,” and Dr. King was soon released. He denied the allegations and told reporters that the incident was part of at least 100 traffic tickets that had been written up over the course of three days, he believed, in order to “break up the citizen’s free transportation system.”
Many of the people charged, including Dr. King, were participating in a carpool program to provide protesters an alternative mode of transportation.
- By spring, as the bus boycott continued, the nation increasingly took notice of Dr. King, “a rather soft-spoken man with a learning and maturity far beyond his twenty-seven years,” as he’s described in a special to The New York Times, March 21, 1956. Under the headline, “Battle Against Tradition,” this article nods to the young leaders who were standing up against segregation in Montgomery, with Dr. King at the center.
“Dr. King is a Baptist preacher in a great southern tradition of resounding, repetitive rhetoric,” the profile notes. “And he can build to his climax with a crescendo of impassioned pulpit-pounding that overwhelms the listener with the depth of his convictions.
Among his convictions are these: That all men are basically good; that ultimately good will triumph over the evil in their nature; that segregation in all its aspects is evil and that ultimately it must be swept away.
He continues to teach this doctrine in public in the heart of a state officially committed to defend segregation at all cost.”
- The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately did order Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and Dr. King emerged as a prominent national leader of the Civil Rights Movement. People around the world wanted to know more about him and Black newspapers like the New York Amsterdam News and the Baltimore Afro-American printed in-depth articles including interviews with friends and family, detailing King’s personal side.
“There are myths growing up already around Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta-born youth who achieved international fame as the dynamic leader of Montgomery’s celebrated bus protest movement. And there will be even more myths as the magnitude of his achievement is finally realized,” predicted the Baltimore Afro-American in a June 15, 1957 article entitled “He Never Liked to Fight.”
“But there is one myth which his early childhood friends in Atlanta would like to see stopped before it gets out of hand.”
That myth was that even as a kid, Dr. King tolerated bullies and taught that love conquers all – but his college buddies and siblings revealed sweet and funny memories that depict “Tweed” (one of Dr. King’s nicknames, based on his youthful desire for a tweed suit) as a “normal guy.” He had lots of girlfriends, “could really cut a rug,” was the best wrestler of the group, and sometimes gave into sibling rivalry.
And he had no qualms with standing up to bullies.
There was the time, when Dr. King was in third grade, recalled his younger brother, “some fellows were giving me a hard time one day, and M.L. came back and took it up. As I recall it, he did more talking than fighting that day, but he straightened it out, all right.”
Learn more about additional resources for Black History, including History Vault: The Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century and the NAACP Papers.