Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist, who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.
Born Michael King, Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. was the middle child of Michael King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. The King and Williams families were rooted in rural Georgia. Martin Jr.'s grandfather, A.D. Williams, was a rural minister for years and then moved to Atlanta in 1893. There he took over the small, struggling Ebenezer Baptist Church with around 13 members and made it into a forceful congregation. He married Jennie Celeste Parks and they had one child that survived, Alberta. Michael King Sr. came from a sharecropper family in a poor farming community. He married Alberta in 1926 after an eight-year courtship. The newlyweds moved to A.D. Williams home in Atlanta.
Michael King, Sr. stepped in a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He too became a very successful minister and adopted the name Martin Luther King, Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due time, Michael, Jr. would follow his dad's lead and adopt the name himself.
Young Martin had an older sister, Willie Christine and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King. The King children grew up in a secure and loving environment. Martin Sr. was more the disciplinarian, while his wife's gentleness easily balanced out the father's more strict hand. Though they undoubtedly tried, Martin Jr.'s parents couldn't shield him completely from racism. Martin Luther King, Sr. fought against racial prejudice, not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will. He strongly discouraged any sense of class superiority in his children which left a lasting impression on Martin Jr.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Jr. entered public school at age five. In May, 1936, he was baptized, but the event made little impression on him. In May, 1941, Martin was 12 years old when is grandmother, Jennie, died of a heart attack. The event was traumatic for Martin, more so because he was out watching a parade against his parents' wishes when she died. Distraught at the news, young Martin attempted suicide by leaping from a second story window at the family home.
Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Booker T. Washington High School, where he was said to be a precocious student, having skipped both the ninth and eleventh grades and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at age 15, in 1944. He was a popular student, especially with the girls, but an unmotivated student who floated though his first two years. Although his family was deeply involved in the church and worship, young Martin questioned religion in general and felt uncomfortable with overly emotional displays of religious worship.
This discomfort continued through much of his adolescence, initially leading him to decide against entering the ministry, much to his father's dismay. But in his junior year, Martin took a Bible class, renewed his faith and began to envision a career in the ministry. In the fall of his senior year, he told his father of his decision, which pleased his father.
Advanced Education and Spiritual Growth
In 1948, Martin Luther King, Jr. took his sociology degree from Morehouse College and attended the liberal Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. There he thrived in all his studies becoming valedictorian of his class in 1951 and elected student body president. He also earned a fellowship for graduate study. But Martin also rebelled against his father's more conservative influence by drinking beer and playing pool while at college. He became involved with a white woman and went through a difficult time before he could break off the affair.
During his last year in seminary, Martin Luther King, Jr. came under the influence of theologian Reinhold Niebbuhr, a classmate of his father's at Morehouse College. Niebbuhr became a mentor to Martin, challenging his liberal views of theology. Niebuhr was probably the single most important influence in Martin's intellectual and spiritual development. After being accepted at several colleges for his doctoral study including Yale and Edinburgh in Scotland, King enrolled in Boston University.
During the work on this doctorate, Martin Luther King, Jr. met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician at the New England Conservatory School in Boston. They were married in June, 1953 and had four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther King, III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. and was award his degree in 1955. King was only 25 years old.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
On March 2, 1955, a fifteen-year-old girl refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus in violation of local law. Claudette Colvin was arrested and taken to jail. At first, the local chapter of the NAACP felt they had an excellent test case to challenge Montgomery's segregated bus policy. But then it was revealed that she was pregnant and civil rights leaders feared this would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin (and, thus the group's efforts) less credible in the eyes of sympathetic whites. On December 1, 1955, they got another chance to make their case.
On that evening, 42 year-old Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home from an exhausting day at work. She sat in the first row of the “colored” section in the middle of the bus. As the bus traveled its route, all the seats it the white section filled up, then several more white passengers boarded the bus. The bus driver noted there were several white men standing and demanded that Parks and several other African Americans give up their seats. Three other African American passengers reluctantly gave up their places, but Parks remained seated. The driver asked her again to give up her seat and again she refused. She was arrested and booked for violating the Montgomery City Code. At her trial a week later, in a thirty minute hearing, Parks was found guilty and fined $10 and assessed $4 court fee.
On the night Rosa Parks was arrested, E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP chapter met with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other local civil rights leaders to plan a city-wide bus boycott. King was elected to lead the boycott because he was young, well-trained with solid family connections and had professional standing. But he was also new to the community and had few enemies, so it was felt he would have strong credibility with the black community.
In his first speech as the group's president, King declared: “We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
Martin Luther King Jr.'s fresh and skillful rhetoric put a new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama. The bus boycott would be 382 days of walking to work, harassment, violence and intimidation for the Montgomery's African American community. Both King's and E.D. Nixon's homes were attacked. But the African American community also took legal action against the city ordinance arguing that it was unconstitutional based on the Supreme Court's “separate is never equal” decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After being defeated in several lower court rulings and suffering large financial losses, the city of Montgomery lifted the law mandating segregated public transportation.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Flush with this victory, African American civil rights leaders recognized the need for a national organization to help coordinate their efforts. In January, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and 60 ministers and civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. King's participation in the organization gave him a base of operation throughout the South, as well as a national platform.
The organization felt the best place to start to give African Americans a voice was to enfranchise them in the voting process. In February, 1958, SCLC sponsored over 20 mass meetings in key southern cities to register black voters in the South. King met with religious and civil rights leaders and lectured all over the country on race–related issues.
In 1959, with the help of the American Friends Service Committee, and inspired by Gandhi's success with non-violent activism, Martin Luther King visited Gandhi's birthplace in India. The trip affected him in a deeply profound way, increasing his commitment to America's civil rights struggle. African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi's teachings, became one of King's associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence.
Rustin served as King's mentor and advisor throughout his early activism and was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But Rustin was also a controversial figure at the time, being a homosexual and alleged to have close ties with the Communist Party, USA. Though his counsel was invaluable to King, many of his other supporters urged him to distance himself from Rustin.
In February, 1960, a group of African American students began what became known as the ‘sit-in’ movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. The students would sit at racially segregated lunch counters in the city's stores. When asked to leave or sit in the colored section, they just remained seated, subjecting themselves to verbal and sometimes physical abuse. The movement quickly gained traction in several other cities. In April, 1960, SCLC held a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with local sit-in leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged students to continue to use nonviolent methods during their protests. Out of this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed and for a time, worked closely with SCLC. By August, 1960, the sit-ins had been successful in ending segregation at lunch counters in 27 southern cities.
By 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gaining national notoriety. He returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church, but also continued his civil rights efforts. On October 19th, King and 75 students entered a local department store and requested lunch-counter service but were denied. When they refused to leave the counter area, King and 36 others were arrested. Realizing the incident would hurt the city's reputation, Atlanta's mayor negotiated a truce and charges were eventually dropped.
But soon after, King was imprisoned for violating his probation on a traffic conviction. The news of his imprisonment entered the 1960 presidential campaign when candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King expressing his concern for the harsh treatment for a traffic ticket and political pressure was quickly set in motion. King was soon released.
I Have A Dream
In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King organized a demonstration in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Entire families attended. City police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Martin Luther King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who attended the demonstration. From the jail in Birmingham, King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
By the end of the Birmingham campaign, Martin Luther King and his supporters were making plans for a massive demonstration on the nation's capital composed of multiple organizations, all asking for peaceful change. On August 28, 1963, the historic March on Washington drew more than 200,000 people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech emphasizing his belief that someday all men could be brothers.
The rising tide of civil rights agitation produced a strong effect on public opinion. Many people in cities not experiencing racial tension began to question the nation's Jim Crow laws and the near century second class treatment of African American citizens. This resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 authorizing the federal government to enforce desegregation of public accommodations and outlawing discrimination in publicly owned facilities. This also led to Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for 1964.
The struggle continued for Martin Luther King throughout the 1960s. It seemed as though progress was “two steps forward and one step back.” On March 7, 1965, a civil rights march, planned from Selma to Alabama's capital in Montgomery, turned violent as police with nightsticks and tear gas met the demonstrators as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge. King was not in the march, however the attack was televised showing horrifying images of marchers being bloodied and severely injured. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized leading to the naming the event “Bloody Sunday.” A second march was cancelled due to a restraining order to prevent the march from taking place.
A third march was planned and this time King made sure he was on it. Not wanting to alienate southern judges by violating the restraining order, a different tact was taken. On March 9, 1965, a procession of 2,500 marchers, both black and white, set out once again to cross the Pettus Bridge and confronted barricades and state troopers. Instead of forcing a confrontation, King led his followers to kneel in prayer and then they turned back. The event caused King the loss of support among some younger African American leaders, but it nonetheless aroused support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the latter part of 1965 through 1967, Martin Luther King expanded his civil rights movement into other larger American cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. But he met with increasing criticism and public challenges from young black-power leaders. King's patient, non-violent approach and appeal to white middle-class citizens alienated many black militants who considered his methods too weak and too late. In the eyes of the sharp-tongued, blue jean young urban black, King's manner was irresponsibly passive and deemed non-effective.
To address this criticism King began making a link between discrimination and poverty. He expanded his civil rights efforts to the Vietnam War. He felt America's involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government's conduct of the war discriminatory to the poor. He sought to broaden his base by forming a multi-race coalition to address economic and unemployment problems of all disadvantaged people.
Assassination and Legacy
By 1968, the years of demonstrations and confrontations were beginning to wear on Martin Luther King, Jr. He was tired of marches, going to jail, and living under the constant threat of death. He was becoming discouraged at the slow progress civil rights in America and the increasing criticism from other African American leaders. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington to revive his movement and bring attention to a widening range of issues. In the spring of 1968, a labor strike by Memphis Tennessee's sanitation workers drew King to one last crusade.
On April 3, in what proved to be an eerie prophetic speech, he told supporters, “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.” The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, Jr. was struck by a sniper's bullet. The shooter, a malcontent drifter and former convict named James Earl Ray, was eventually apprehended after a two-month international manhunt. The killing sparked riots and demonstrations in over 100 cities across the country. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating King and was sentenced to 99 years. He died in prison on April 23, 1998.
Martin Luther King's life had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States. Years after his death, he is the most widely known African American leader of his era. His life and work have been honored with a national holiday, schools and public buildings named after him, and a memorial on Independence Mall in Washington, D.C.
But his life remains controversial as well. In the 1970s, FBI files, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that he was under government surveillance and suggested adulterous relationships and communist influences. Over the years, extensive archival study has led to a more balanced and comprehensive assessment of his life, portraying him as a complex figure: flawed, fallible, and limited in his control over the mass movements with which he was associated, yet also a visionary leader who was deeply committed to achieving social justice through nonviolent means.
January 15, 1929
April 4, 1968
- He almost didn’t become a minister. After graduating from college, he still had serious doubts about Christianity and the Bible and told his father (who was a Baptist minister, as his grandfather had also been) that he didn’t want to be a minister and instead was considering becoming a doctor or a lawyer. He later decided that the Bible had “many profound truths which one cannot escape” and chose to become a minister, entering seminary at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He graduated with his PhD at the age of 25.
- King won a Grammy and was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and a Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom and the Gold Medal make sense, but how on Earth did he win a Grammy, you say? He won it in 1971 for Best Spoken Word Album for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam”.
- His house was once bombed. This was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted a total of 385 days.
- His mother, Alberta Williams King, was also murdered. She was killed while attending church in Atlanta in 1974 by a 23 year old man, Marcus Wayne Chenault, who believed “all Christians are my enemies”. He shot and killed her while she was playing organ at the church.
- It wasn’t until the year 2000 that all 50 states officially observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The last states to join up where Arizona in 1992, New Hampshire in 1999, and Utah in 2000. The holiday itself was originally signed into federal law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, with the first MLK holiday on January 20, 1986.
- There are only two other people in American history that have a national holiday in their honor, George Washington and Christopher Columbus. As such, Martin Luther King Jr. is the only native born United States citizen to have a national holiday in his honor. (Note: While Washington was born in Virginia, obviously the United States did not yet exist. For reference, the first President to be born in the country of the United States was Martin Van Buren. He was also the first President not of Irish or British ancestry ‐ his ancestors were Dutch.)
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