Martin Luther King, Jr.
1929 - 1968
King, Jr., Southern clergyman and Nobel Prize winner, one of the principal
leaders of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of
nonviolent protest. King’s challenges to segregation and racial discrimination
in the 1950s and 1960s helped convince many white Americans to support the cause
of civil rights in the United States. After his assassination in 1968, King
became a symbol of protest in the struggle for racial justice.
King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest son of Martin Luther King,
Sr., a Baptist minister, and Alberta Williams King. His father served as pastor
of a large Atlanta church, Ebenezer Baptist, which had been founded by Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s maternal grandfather. King, Jr. was ordained as a Baptist
minister at age 18.
local segregated public schools, where he excelled. He entered nearby Morehouse
College at age 15 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1948.
After graduating with honors from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in
1951, he went to Boston University where he earned a doctoral degree in
systematic theology in 1955.
public-speaking abilities—which would become renowned as his stature grew in
the civil rights movement—developed slowly during his collegiate years. He won
a second-place prize in a speech contest while an undergraduate at Morehouse,
but received Cs in two public-speaking courses in his first year at Crozer. By
the end of his third year at Crozer, however, professors were praising King for
the powerful impression he made in public speeches and discussions.
education, King was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the
struggles of oppressed peoples. At Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University, he
studied the teachings on nonviolent protest of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi.
King also read and heard the sermons of white Protestant ministers who preached
against American racism. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse and a leader
in the national community of racially liberal clergymen, was especially
important in shaping King’s theological development.
Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a music student and native of Alabama. They were
married in 1953 and would have four children. In 1954 King accepted his first
pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church
with a well-educated congregation that had recently been led by a minister who
had protested against segregation.
black community had long-standing grievances about the mistreatment of blacks on
city buses. Many white bus drivers treated blacks rudely, often cursing them and
humiliating them by enforcing the city’s segregation laws, which forced black
riders to sit in the back of buses and give up their seats to white passengers
on crowded buses. By the early 1950s Montgomery’s blacks had discussed
boycotting the buses in an effort to gain better treatment—but not necessarily
to end segregation.
On December 1,
1955, Rosa Parks, a leading member of the local branch of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was ordered by a bus
driver to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she refused, she was
arrested and taken to jail. Local leaders of the NAACP, especially Edgar D.
Nixon, recognized that the arrest of the popular and highly respected Parks was
the event that could rally local blacks to a bus protest.
believed that a citywide protest should be led by someone who could unify the
community. Unlike Nixon and other leaders in Montgomery’s black community, the
recently arrived King had no enemies. Furthermore, Nixon saw King’s
public-speaking gifts as great assets in the battle for black civil rights in
Montgomery. King was soon chosen as president of the Montgomery Improvement
Association (MIA), the organization that directed the bus boycott.
bus boycott lasted for more than a year, demonstrating a new spirit of protest
among Southern blacks. King’s serious demeanor and consistent appeal to
Christian brotherhood and American idealism made a positive impression on whites
outside the South. Incidents of violence against black protesters, including the
bombing of King’s home, focused media attention on Montgomery. In February
1956 an attorney for the MIA filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an
injunction against Montgomery’s segregated seating practices. The federal
court ruled in favor of the MIA, ordering the city’s buses to be desegregated,
but the city government appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court.
By the time the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision in November 1956,
King was a national figure. His memoir of the bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom
(1958), provided a thoughtful account of that experience and further extended
King’s national influence.
In 1957 King
helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an
organization of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial
segregation. As SCLC’s president, King became the organization’s dominant
personality and its primary intellectual influence. He was responsible for much
of the organization’s fund-raising, which he frequently conducted in
conjunction with preaching engagements in Northern churches.
sought to complement the NAACP’s legal efforts to dismantle segregation
through the courts, with King and other SCLC leaders encouraging the use of
nonviolent direct action to protest discrimination. These activities included
marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The violent responses that direct action
provoked from some whites eventually forced the federal government to confront
the issues of injustice and racism in the South.
strategic alliances with Northern whites that would bolster his success at
influencing public opinion in the United States. Through Bayard Rustin, a black
civil rights and peace activist, King forged connections to older radical
activists, many of them Jewish, who provided money and advice about strategy.
King’s closest adviser at times was Stanley Levison, a Jewish activist and
former member of the American Communist Party. King also developed strong ties
to leading white Protestant ministers in the North, with whom he shared
theological and moral views.
In 1959 King
visited India and worked out more clearly his understanding of Satyagraha,
Gandhi’s principle of nonviolent persuasion, which King had determined to use
as his main instrument of social protest. The next year he gave up his pastorate
in Montgomery to become co-pastor (with his father) of the Ebenezer Baptist
Church in Atlanta.
In the early
1960s King led SCLC in a series of protest campaigns that gained national
attention. The first was in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, where SCLC joined local
demonstrations against segregated restaurants, hotels, transit, and housing.
SCLC increased the size of the demonstrations in an effort to create so much
dissent and disorder that local white officials would be forced to end
segregation to restore normal business relations. The strategy did not work in
Albany. During months of protests, Albany’s police chief jailed hundreds of
demonstrators without visible police violence. Eventually the protesters’
energy, and the money to bail out protesters, ran out.
did work, however, in Birmingham, Alabama, when SCLC joined a local protest
during the spring of 1963. The protest was led by SCLC member Fred Shuttlesworth,
one of the ministers who had worked with King in 1957 in organizing SCLC.
Shuttlesworth believed that the Birmingham police commissioner, Eugene
“Bull” Connor, would meet protesters with violence. In May 1963 King and his
SCLC staff escalated antisegregation marches in Birmingham by encouraging
teenagers and school children to join. Hundreds of singing children filled the
streets of downtown Birmingham, angering Connor, who sent police officers with
attack dogs and firefighters with high-pressure water hoses against the
marchers. Scenes of young protesters being attacked by dogs and pinned against
buildings by torrents of water from fire hoses were shown in newspapers and on
televisions around the world.
demonstrations, King was arrested and sent to jail. He wrote a letter from his
jail cell to local clergymen who had criticized him for creating disorder in the
city. His “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which argued that individuals
had the moral right and responsibility to disobey unjust laws, was widely read
at the time and added to King’s standing as a moral leader.
reaction to the Birmingham violence built support for the struggle for black
civil rights. The demonstrations forced white leaders to negotiate an end to
some forms of segregation in Birmingham. Even more important, the protests
encouraged many Americans to support national legislation against segregation.
“I Have a
King and other
black leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington, a massive protest in
Washington, D.C., for jobs and civil rights. On August 28, 1963, King delivered
the keynote address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters.
His “I Have a Dream” speech expressed the hopes of the civil rights movement
in oratory as moving as any in American history: “I have a dream that one day
this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold
these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … I have a
dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will
not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their
The speech and
the march built on the Birmingham demonstrations to create the political
momentum that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited
segregation in public accommodations, as well as discrimination in education and
employment. As a result of King’s effectiveness as a leader of the American
civil rights movement and his highly visible moral stance he was awarded the
1964 Nobel Prize for peace.
1965 SCLC joined a voting-rights protest march that was planned to go from
Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery, more than 80 km (50 mi)
away. The goal of the march was to draw national attention to the struggle for
black voting rights in the state. Police beat and tear-gassed the marchers just
outside of Selma, and televised scenes of the violence, on a day that came to be
known as Bloody Sunday, resulted in an outpouring of support to continue the
march. SCLC petitioned for and received a federal court order barring police
from interfering with a renewed march to Montgomery. Two weeks after Bloody
Sunday, more than 3000 people, including a core of 300 marchers who would make
the entire trip, set out toward Montgomery. They arrived in Montgomery five days
later, where King addressed a rally of more than 20,000 people in front of the
created support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Lyndon
Johnson signed into law in August. The act suspended (and amendments to the act
later banned) the use of literacy tests and other voter qualification tests that
often had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote.
After the Selma
protests, King had fewer dramatic successes in his struggle for black civil
rights. Many white Americans who had supported his work believed that the job
was done. In many ways, the nation’s appetite for civil rights progress had
been filled. King also lost support among white Americans when he joined the
growing number of antiwar activists in 1965 and began to criticize publicly
American foreign policy in Vietnam. King’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam
War (1959-1975) also angered President Johnson. On the other hand, some of
King’s white supporters agreed with his criticisms of United States
involvement in Vietnam so strongly that they shifted their activism from civil
rights to the antiwar movement.
mid-1960s King’s role as the unchallenged leader of the civil rights movement
was questioned by many younger blacks. Activists such as Stokely Carmichael of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) argued that King’s
nonviolent protest strategies and appeals to moral idealism were useless in the
face of sustained violence by whites. Some also rejected the leadership of
ministers. In addition, many SNCC organizers resented King, feeling that often
they had put in the hard work of planning and organizing protests, only to have
the charismatic King arrive later and receive much of the credit. In 1966 the
Black Power movement, advocated most forcefully by Carmichael, captured the
nation’s attention and suggested that King’s influence among blacks was
waning. Black Power advocates looked more to the beliefs of the recently
assassinated black Muslim leader, Malcolm X, whose insistence on black
self-reliance and the right of blacks to defend themselves against violent
attacks had been embraced by many African Americans.
divisions beginning to divide the civil rights movement, King shifted his focus
to racial injustice in the North. Realizing that the economic difficulties of
blacks in Northern cities had largely been ignored, SCLC broadened its civil
rights agenda by focusing on issues related to black poverty. King established a
headquarters in a Chicago apartment in 1966, using that as a base to organize
protests against housing and employment discrimination in the city. Black
Baptist ministers who disagreed with many of SCLC’s tactics, especially the
confrontational act of sending black protesters into all-white neighborhoods,
publicly opposed King’s efforts. The protests did not lead to significant
gains and were often met with violent counter-demonstrations by whites,
including neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, a secret terrorist
organization that was opposed to integration.
1966 and 1967 King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism
throughout the country to economic issues. He began to argue for redistribution
of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome entrenched black poverty. In 1967
he began planning a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure national lawmakers to
address the issue of economic justice.
on economic rights took King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black
garbage workers in the spring of 1968. He was assassinated in Memphis by a
sniper on April 4. News of the assassination resulted in an outpouring of shock
and anger throughout the nation and the world, prompting riots in more than 100
United States cities in the days following King’s death. In 1969 James Earl
Ray, an escaped white convict, pleaded guilty to the murder of King and was
sentenced to 99 years in prison. Although over the years many investigators have
suspected that Ray did not act alone, no accomplices have ever been identified.
death, historians researching his life and career discovered that the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) often tapped King’s phone line and reported on
his private life to the president and other government officials. The FBI’s
reason for invading his privacy was that King associated with Communists and
death, King came to represent black courage and achievement, high moral
leadership, and the ability of Americans to address and overcome racial
divisions. Recollections of his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy and poverty
faded, and his soaring rhetoric calling for racial justice and an integrated
society became almost as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the
Declaration of Independence.
King’s historical importance was memorialized at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Justice, a research institute in Atlanta. Also in Atlanta is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes his birthplace, the Ebenezer Church, and the King Center, where his tomb is located. Perhaps the most important memorial is the national holiday in King’s honor, designated by the Congress of the United States in 1983 and observed on the third Monday in January, a day that falls on or near King’s birthday of January 15.