Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 April 4, 1968) was an American clergyman, activist and prominent leader in the American civil rights movement. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States and he is frequently referenced as a human rights icon today.
A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–6) and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957), serving as its first president. His efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. There, he raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement and established himself as one of the greatest orators in U.S. history.
In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and racial discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means. By the time of his death in 1968, he had refocused his efforts on ending poverty and opposing the Vietnam War, both from a religious perspective.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. national holiday in 1986.
Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. He skipped ninth and twelfth grade, and entered Morehouse College at age fifteen without formally graduating from high school. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. In September 1951, King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955. A 1980s inquiry concluded portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly but that his dissertation still "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship".
King married Coretta Scott, on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents' house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. King and Scott had four children; Yolanda King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice King. In 1954, at age twenty-five, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Gandhi's nonviolent techniques were useful to King's campaign to correct the civil rights laws implemented in Alabama. King applied non-violent philosophy to the protests organized by the SCLC. In 1959, he wrote The Measure of A Man, from which the piece What is Man?, an attempt to sketch the optimal political, social, and economic structure of society, is derived.
The FBI, under written directive from then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, began telephone tapping King in 1963. J. Edgar Hoover feared Communists were trying to infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement, but when no such evidence emerged, the bureau used the incidental details caught on tape over the next five years in attempts to force King out of the preeminent leadership position.
King correctly recognized that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that the Civil Rights Movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.
King organized and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King and the SCLC applied the principles of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out. There were often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities. Sometimes these confrontations turned violent.
After nearly a year of intense activism with few tangible results, the movement began to deteriorate. King requested a halt to all demonstrations and a "Day of Penance" to promote non-violence and maintain the moral high ground. Divisions within the black community and the canny, low-key response by local government defeated efforts. However, it was credited as a key lesson in tactics for the national civil rights movement.
Protests in Birmingham began with a boycott to pressure businesses to sales jobs and other employment to people of all races, as well as to end segregated facilities in the stores. When business leaders resisted the boycott, King and the SCLC began what they termed Project C, a series of sit-ins and marches intended to provoke arrest. After the campaign ran low on adult volunteers, it recruited children for what became known as the "Children's Crusade". During the protests, the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene "Bull" Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs to control protesters, including children. Not all of the demonstrators were peaceful, despite the avowed intentions of the SCLC. In some cases, bystanders attacked the police, who responded with force. King and the SCLC were criticized for putting children in harm's way. By the end of the campaign, King's reputation improved immensely, Connor lost his job, the "Jim Crow" signs in Birmingham came down, and public places became more open to blacks.
King and the SCLC joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, in December 1964, where SNCC had been working on voter registration for several months. A sweeping injunction issued by a local judge barred any gathering of 3 or more people under sponsorship of SNCC, SCLC, or DCVL, or with the involvement of 41 named civil rights leaders. This injunction temporarily halted civil rights activity until King defied it by speaking at Brown Chapel on January 2 1965.
King, representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called "Big Six" civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The other leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were: Roy Wilkins from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Whitney Young, National Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James L. Farmer, Jr. of the Congress of Racial Equality. The primary logistical and strategic organizer was King's colleague Bayard Rustin. For King, this role was another which courted controversy, since he was one of the key figures who acceded to the wishes of President John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of the march. Kennedy initially opposed the march outright, because he was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil rights legislation, but the organizers were firm that the march would proceed.
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate condition of blacks in the southern United States and a very public opportunity to place organizers' concerns and grievances squarely before the seat of power in the nation's capital. Organizers intended to excoriate and then challenge the federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and blacks, generally, in the South. However, the group acquiesced to presidential pressure and influence, and the event ultimately took on a far less strident tone. As a result, some civil rights activists felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington," and members of the Nation of Islam were not permitted to attend the march.
The march did, however, make specific demands: an end to racial segregation in public school; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for Washington, D.C., then governed by congressional committee. Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than a quarter million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event, sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest gathering of protesters in Washington's history. King's "I Have a Dream" speech electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Infamy Speech, as one of the finest speeches in the history of American oratory.
Throughout his career of service, King wrote and spoke frequently, drawing on his experience as a preacher. His "Letter from Birmingham Jail", written in 1963, is a "passionate" statement of his crusade for justice. On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading non-violent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States.
Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a view that black Americans, as well as other disadvantaged Americans, should be compensated for historical wrongs. In an interview conducted for Playboy in 1965, he said that granting black Americans only equality could not realistically close the economic gap between them and whites. King said that he did not seek a full restitution of wages lost to slavery, which he believed impossible, but proposed a government compensatory program of US$50 billion over ten years to all disadvantaged groups. He posited that "the money spent would be more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils". He presented this idea as an application of the common law regarding settlement of unpaid labor but clarified that he felt that the money should not be spent exclusively on blacks. He stated, "It should benefit the disadvantaged of all races".
King next attempted to organize a march for March 9. The SCLC petitioned for an injunction in federal court against the State of Alabama; this was denied and the judge issued an order blocking the march until after a hearing. Nonetheless, King led marchers on March 9 to the Edmund Pettus bridge, then held a short prayer session before turning the marchers around and asking them to disperse so as not to violate the court order. The unexpected ending of this second march aroused the surprise and anger of many within the local movement. The march finally went ahead fully on March 25. At the conclusion of the march and on the steps of the state capitol, King delivered a speech that has become known as "How Long, Not Long".
In 1966, after several successes in the South, King and others in the civil rights organizations tried to spread the movement to the North, with Chicago as its first destination. King and Ralph Abernathy, both from the middle classes, moved into the slums of North Lawndale on the west side of Chicago as an educational experience and to demonstrate their support and empathy for the poor.
The SCLC formed a coalition with CCCO, Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, an organization founded by Albert Raby, and the combined organizations' efforts were fostered under the aegis of The Chicago Freedom Movement. During that spring, several dual white couple/black couple tests on real estate offices uncovered the practice (now banned in the U.S.) of racial steering. These tests revealed the racially selective processing of housing requests by couples who were exact matches in income, background, number of children, and other attributes, with the only difference being their race.
The needs of the movement for radical change grew, and several larger marches were planned and executed, including those in the following neighborhoods: Bogan, Belmont Cragin, Jefferson Park, Evergreen Park (a suburb southwest of Chicago), Gage Park and Marquette Park, among others.
In Chicago, Abernathy later wrote that they received a worse reception than they had in the South. Their marches were met by thrown bottles and screaming throngs, and they were truly afraid of starting a riot. King's beliefs mitigated against his staging a violent event, and he negotiated an agreement with Mayor Richard J. Daley to cancel a march in order to avoid the violence that he feared would result from the demonstration. King, who received death threats throughout his involvement in the civil rights movement, was hit by a brick during one march but continued to lead marches in the face of personal danger.
When King and his allies returned to the south, they left Jesse Jackson, a seminary student who had previously joined the movement in the South, in charge of their organization. Jackson continued their struggle for civil rights by organizing the Operation Breadbasket movement that targeted chain stores that did not deal fairly with blacks.
King also was opposed to the Vietnam War on the grounds that the war took money and resources that could have been spent on the War on Poverty. The United States Congress was spending more and more on the military and less and less on anti-poverty programs at the same time. He summed up this aspect by saying, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death".
King was long hated by many white southern segregationists, but this speech turned the more mainstream media against him. Life magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi", and The Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.
King stated that North Vietnam "did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until American forces had arrived in the tens of thousands". King also criticized the United States' resistance to North Vietnam's land reforms. He accused the United States of having killed a million Vietnamese, "mostly children.
The speech was a reflection of King's evolving political advocacy in his later years, which paralleled the teachings of the progressive Highlander Research and Education Center, with whom King was affiliated. King began to speak of the need for fundamental changes in the political and economic life of the nation. Toward the end of his life, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism. In one speech, he stated that "something is wrong with capitalism" and claimed, "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
King had read Marx while at Morehouse, but while he rejected "traditional capitalism," he also rejected Communism because of its "materialistic interpretation of history" that denied religion, its "ethical relativism," and its "political totalitarianism.
King also stated in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech that "true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar....it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring". King quoted a United States official, who said that, from Vietnam to South America to Latin America, the country was "on the wrong side of a world revolution" King condemned America's "alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and said that the United States should support "the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World rather than suppressing their attempts at revolution.
However, the campaign was not unanimously supported by other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin resigned from the march stating that the goals of the campaign were too broad, the demands unrealizable, and thought these campaigns would accelerate the backlash and repression on the poor and the black. Throughout his participation in the civil rights movement, King was criticized by many groups. This included opposition by more militant blacks and such prominent critics as Nation of Islam member Malcolm X. Stokely Carmichael was a separatist and disagreed with King's plea for racial integration because he considered it an insult to a uniquely African-American culture. Omali Yeshitela urged Africans to remember the history of violent European colonization and how power was not secured by Europeans through integration, but by violence and force.
King and the SCLC called on the government to invest in rebuilding America's cities. He felt that Congress had shown "hostility to the poor" by spending "military funds with alacrity and generosity". He contrasted this with the situation faced by poor Americans, claiming that Congress had merely provided "poverty funds with miserliness". His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of "racism, poverty, militarism and materialism", and argued that "reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced".
On March 29, 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of the black sanitary public works employees, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, who had been on strike since March 12 for higher wages and better treatment. In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.
On April 3, King addressed a rally and delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address at Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. King's flight to Memphis had been delayed by a bomb threat against his plane. In the close of the last speech of his career, in reference to the bomb threat, King said the following:
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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.
King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, owned by Walter Bailey, in Memphis. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King's close friend and colleague who was present at the assassination, swore under oath to the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations that King and his entourage stayed at room 306 at the Lorraine Motel so often it was known as the 'King-Abernathy suite.' King was shot at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968 while he was standing on the motel's second floor balcony. The bullet entered through his right cheek smashing his jaw and then traveling down his spinal cord before lodging in his shoulder. According to Jesse Jackson, who was present, King's last words on the balcony were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was attending: "Ben, make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty. Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. The events following the shooting have been disputed, as some people have accused Jackson of exaggerating his response.
After emergency surgery, King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital at 7:05 p.m. According to biographer Taylor Branch, King's autopsy revealed that though only thirty-nine years old, he had the heart of a sixty-year-old, evidencing the stress of thirteen years in the civil rights movement.
The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared April 7 a national day of mourning for the civil rights leader. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended King's funeral on behalf of Lyndon B. Johnson, as there were fears that Johnson's presence might incite protests and perhaps violence. At his widow's request, King's last sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was played at the funeral. It was a recording of his "Drum Major" sermon, given on February 4, 1968. In that sermon, King made a request that at his funeral no mention of his awards and honors be made, but that it be said that he tried to "feed the hungry", "clothe the naked", "be right on the [Vietnam] war question", and "love and serve humanity". His good friend Mahalia Jackson sang his favorite hymn, "Take My hand, Precious Lord", at the funeral. The city of Memphis quickly settled the strike on terms favorable to the sanitation workers.
Two months after King's death, escaped convict James Earl Ray was captured at London Heathrow Airport while trying to leave the United Kingdom on a false Canadian passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. Ray was quickly extradited to Tennessee and charged with King's murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969, though he recanted this confession three days later. On the advice of his attorney Percy Foreman, Ray pleaded guilty to avoid a trial conviction and thus the possibility of receiving the death penalty. Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. Ray fired Foreman as his attorney, from then on derisively calling him "Percy Fourflusher". He claimed a man he met in Montreal, Quebec with the alias "Raoul" was involved and that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. He spent the remainder of his life attempting (unsuccessfully) to withdraw his guilty plea and secure the trial he never had. On June 10, 1977, shortly after Ray had testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that he did not shoot King, he and six other convicts escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. They were recaptured on June 13 and returned to prison.
Those suspecting a conspiracy in the assassination point out the two separate ballistics tests conducted on the Remington Gamemaster recovered by police had neither conclusively proved Ray had been the killer nor that it had even been the murder weapon. Moreover, witnesses surrounding King at the moment of his death say the shot came from another location, from behind thick shrubbery near the rooming house - which had been inexplicably cut away in the days following the assassination - and not from the rooming house window.
In 2000, the United States Department of Justice completed the investigation about Jowers' claims but did not find evidence to support allegations about conspiracy. The investigation report recommended no further investigation unless some new reliable facts are presented. The New York Times reported a church minister, Rev. Ronald Denton Wilson, claimed his father, Henry Clay Wilson — not James Earl Ray — assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. He stated, "It wasn't a racist thing; he thought Martin Luther King was connected with communism, and he wanted to get him out of the way."
King's friend and colleague, James Bevel, disputed the argument that Ray acted alone, stating, "There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man. In 2004, Jesse Jackson, who was with King at the time of his death, noted:
The fact is there were saboteurs to disrupt the march. And within our own organization, we found a very key person who was on the government payroll. So infiltration within, saboteurs from without and the press attacks. …I will never believe that James Earl Ray had the motive, the money and the mobility to have done it himself. Our government was very involved in setting the stage for and I think the escape route for James Earl Ray.
The attempt to prove that King was a Communist was in keeping with the feeling of many segregationists that blacks in the South were happy with their lot but had been stirred up by "communists" and "outside agitators". Lawyer-advisor Stanley D. Levison did have ties with the Communist Party in various business dealings, but the FBI refused to believe its own intelligence bureau reports that Levison was no longer associated in that capacity. In response to the FBI's comments regarding communists directing the civil rights movement, King said that "the Negro revolution is a genuine revolution, born from the same womb that produces all massive social upheavals—the womb of intolerable conditions and unendurable situations.
Later, the focus of the Bureau's investigations shifted to attempting to discredit King through revelations regarding his private life. FBI surveillance of King, some of it since made public, attempted to demonstrate that he also engaged in numerous extramarital affairs. Further remarks on King's lifestyle were made by several prominent officials, such as President Johnson who once said that King was a “hypocritical preacher”. One incident that caught the FBI's attention was purported recording of a sexual encounter that took place at a 1964 party King was attending at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. The FBI presumed it was King who they heard engaged in a sexual encounter. Ralph Abernathy, a close associate of King's, stated in his 1989 autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down that King was a womanizer. In a later interview, Abernathy said he only wrote the term "womanizing", and did not specifically say King had extramarital sex. Arguments that King possibly engaged in sexual affairs have been detailed by history professor David Garrow.
The FBI distributed reports regarding such affairs to the executive branch, friendly reporters, potential coalition partners and funding sources of the SCLC, and King's family. The Bureau also sent anonymous letters to King threatening to reveal information if he did not cease his civil rights work. One anonymous letter sent to King just before he received the Nobel Peace Prize read, in part, "The American public, the church organizations that have been helping—Protestants, Catholics and Jews will know you for what you are—an evil beast. So will others who have backed you. You are done. King, there, is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significant [sic]). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation. King interpreted this as encouragement for him to commit suicide, although William Sullivan, head of the Domestic Intelligence Division at the time, argued that it may have only been intended to "convince Dr. King to resign from the SCLC." King refused to give in to the FBI's threats.
In January 31, 1977, United States district Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr., ordered all known copies of the recorded audiotapes and written transcripts resulting from the FBI's electronic surveillance of King between 1963 and 1968 to be held in the National Archives and sealed from public access until 2027.
Across from the Lorraine Motel, next to the rooming house in which James Earl Ray was staying, was a fire station. Police officers were stationed in the fire station to keep King under surveillance. Using papered-over windows with peepholes cut into them, the agents were watching the scene while Martin Luther King was shot. Immediately following the shooting, officers rushed out of the station to the motel, and Marrell McCollough, an undercover police officer, was the first person to administer first-aid to King. The antagonism between King and the FBI, the lack of an all points bulletin to find the killer, and the police presence nearby have led to speculation that the FBI was involved in the assassination.
King's wife, Coretta Scott King, followed her husband's footsteps and was active in matters of social justice and civil rights until her death in 2006. The same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, Mrs. King established the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, dedicated to preserving his legacy and the work of championing nonviolent conflict resolution and tolerance worldwide. His son, Dexter King, currently serves as the center's chairman. Daughter Yolanda King is a motivational speaker, author and founder of Higher Ground Productions, an organization specializing in diversity training. There is some debate even within the King family as to where he would have stood on gay rights issues. King's widow Coretta said publicly that she believed her husband would have supported gay rights. His daughter Bernice believed he would have been opposed to them. The King Center includes discrimination, and lists homophobia as one of its examples, in its list of "The Triple Evils" that should be opposed.
In 1980, King's boyhood home in Atlanta and several other nearby buildings were declared the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. In 1996, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was authorized by the United States Congress to establish a foundation to manage fund raising and design of a Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans. King was the first African American honored with his own memorial in the National Mall area and the first non-President to be commemorated in such a way. The sculptor chosen was Lei Yixin. The King Memorial will be administered by the National Park Service. King's assassination inspired the publication of Maya Angelou's 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In spring of 2006, a stage play about King was produced in Beijing, China with King portrayed by Chinese actor, Cao Li. The play was written by Stanford University professor, Clayborne Carson.
In 1966, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America awarded King the Margaret Sanger Award for "his courageous resistance to bigotry and his lifelong dedication to the advancement of social justice and human dignity." King was posthumously awarded the Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights by Jamaica in 1968.
In 1971, King was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for his Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam. Six years later, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to King by Jimmy Carter. King and his wife were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
King was second in Gallup's List of Widely Admired People in the 20th century. In 1963 King was named Time Person of the Year and in 2000, King was voted sixth in the Person of the Century poll by the same magazine. King was elected third in the Greatest American contest conducted by the Discovery Channel and AOL.
More than 730 cities in the United States have streets named after King. King County, Washington rededicated its name in his honor in 1986, and changed its logo to an image of his face in 2007. The city government center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is named in honor of King. King is venerated as a saint by the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (feast day April 4) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (feast day January 15).
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