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Walk the path of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life at Bird Park

In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.Associated Press

A self-guided informational walk in a grassy meadow at Walpole’s Bird Park tells the story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s connections to Boston and offers some less-well-known details of his heroic, though tragically shortened, life.

Thirty informational posters about King’s life, including photos and text, have been posted on a fence that runs along the “sports courts” at Francis William Bird Park in time for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, Jan. 17. The display consists of 30 temporary laminated signs. The park is open every day, dawn to dusk, and it’s free to explore.

“It’s a holiday,” said Maura O’Gara, the engagement manager for the Trustees preserve. “Families have time to get outdoors and explore a little. This is a way to get outside and enjoy a beautiful place and to learn more and appreciate more about this extraordinary person.”

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The man who would become the acknowledged leader and spokesman for his country’s Civil Rights movement spent three years in Boston, where he met his wife, Coretta, and earned a PhD in theology. He was assassinated in Memphis in 1968; and in 1986, the third Monday in January was established as a federal holiday in his honor.

The informational display at Bird Park was created to “pique your interest in discovering more about the man who helped unite a divided nation” about the need to put an end to segregation, O’Gara said.

The display’s 30 posters include a large image of a monumental, brass-tinted sculpture titled “The Embrace,” planned for a new memorial honoring King’s life to be built in Boston Common. The 22-foot sculpture representing the hands of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, was designed by the artist Hank Willis Thomas and architects at MASS Design Group.

The display explains King’s ties to Boston, where his theology studies at Boston University earned him the title of “Dr. King.” He studied there with Dean Howard Thurman, who shared his account of a visit to India and a meeting with Mohandas Gandhi, who led that country’s nonviolent independence movement. That lesson planted the seeds for King’s campaign of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.

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Some six months after graduating from BU, King led the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., in which his leadership first began to attract national recognition. Although unable to attend his 1955 graduation ceremony, he returned to Boston to receive an honorary degree from BU in 1959. And after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he donated his personal papers to Boston University.

The Bird Park display includes many little-known facts about King, including the detail that at his birth on Jan. 15, 1929, he was named “Michael” King, Jr. In 1934, however, his pastor father traveled to Germany and felt so inspired by Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther that he changed both his own name, and that of his 5-year-old son, to “Martin Luther” King.

After graduating early from high school, King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. The display points out that as a sociology major, he did not plan to be a clergyman until the college’s president, noted theologian Benjamin Mayes, persuaded him to become ordained. Another lesser known detail of the King biography is that after he married Coretta Scott in 1953 in segregated Alabama, the new couple were unable to find a hotel that would accept Black guests. They ended up spending the night in an undertaker’s guest room.

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Four years later, as the Civil Rights movement gained traction in the South – and allies in the North – King spoke at a Washington, D.C., rally before a crowd of 30,000, delivering his first big address on the subject of voting rights for Black Americans.

Another poster provides background information on King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech offered to the huge rally at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. While King had spoken of the dream at an earlier rally, reference to the dream wasn’t part of the speech until singer Mahalia Jackson urged him to include it. He then improvised the address’s celebrated passage. The event, and the speech, remain permanently etched into the national memory.

Telling details on other posters, however, can remind contemporary Americans how hard it was for Black civil rights leaders to exercise their First Amendment freedoms in segregated America. The display points out that King was arrested more than 30 times, both on trumped-up charges and for acts of highly public civil disobedience to segregation laws during his activities on behalf of civil rights.

Two years after the Lincoln Memorial speech, King returned to Boston to make a speech at the State House and lead a “freedom march” of some 20,000 people from Boston’s South End to the Boston Common. “Now is the time,” he told that gathering, as noted on the display poster, “to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to make brotherhood a reality. Now is the time.”

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O’Gara said that the information on the display was drawn from her research into a variety of online sources.

The largest parking area for Bird Park is located at 135 Polley Lane in Walpole. For more information on events at the park, see www.thetrustees.org/events.

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox2@gmail.com.