Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Baptist minister and social activist Martin Luther King Jr. played a crucial role in the American civil rights movement from the middle of the 1950s until his death in 1968. King used nonviolent protest to demand equality and human rights for African Americans, the underprivileged, and all other victims of injustice. He was the driving force behind significant events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, among other important pieces of legislation. Since 1986, the United States has honored Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday in his honor. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Early Years of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, the second child of pastor Martin Luther King Sr. and former teacher Alberta Williams King.

He grew up in the city’s Sweet Auburn area with his older sister Christine and younger brother Alfred Daniel Williams, which at the time was home to some of the most illustrious and affluent African Americans in the nation.

King, a talented student who attended segregated public schools, was accepted to Morehouse College, the school of his father and maternal grandfather, when he was 15 years old. There, he studied medicine and law.

Although he had not intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by entering the ministry, he changed his mind while being mentored by Dr. Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College and a well-known theologian and racial equality activist. Martin Luther King went in Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary after graduating in 1948, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity, won a coveted fellowship, and was elected class president of his mostly white senior class.

After that, Martin Luther King enrolled in a doctoral program at Boston University, where he eventually graduated in 1953 with a doctorate in systematic theology. He met Coretta Scott, a teenage vocalist from Alabama who was attending the New England Conservatory of Music, while he was in Boston. 1953 saw the couple’s marriage, and they made Montgomery, Alabama, their home. King took on the role of pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Yolanda Denise King, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King, and Bernice Albertine King were the Kings’ four children.

Boycott of Montgomery buses

When the extremely segregated city of Montgomery became the focal point of the emerging American civil rights movement, inspired by the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, the King family had only been residing there for less than a year.

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On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks—the secretary of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery, Alabama—refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus and was consequently jailed. A bus boycott was organized by activists, and it lasted for 381 days. The public transit system and owners of downtown businesses both experienced great economic hardship as a result of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. was selected to serve as the protest’s coordinator and spokesperson. By the time the Supreme Court declared segregated sitting on public buses unlawful in November 1956, King had already shot to fame as an inspirational supporter of organized, nonviolent opposition. King had been greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the activist Bayard Rustin.

White nationalists had also started to target King, and they firebombed his home that January.

On September 20, 1958, Izola Ware Curry visited a Harlem department store where Martin Luther King was signing books and asked, “Are you Martin Luther King?” When he said “yes,” she used a knife to stab him in the chest. The attempted assassination only strengthened King’s commitment to nonviolence because he lived to tell about it: “The events of the past few days have strengthened my belief in the value of the nonviolent spirit if necessary social change is to occur peacefully.”

Christian Leadership Conference of the South

A group dedicated to obtaining complete equality for African Americans via nonviolent protest, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established in 1957 by him and other civil rights activists, the majority of whom were fellow clergymen and inspired by the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The SCLC stood by the maxim, “Not one hair of one person’s head should be harmed.” Martin Luther King would continue to lead this significant group until his passing.

Martin Luther King Jr. traveled across the nation and the globe while serving as president of the SCLC, making speeches on civil rights and nonviolent protest and meeting with religious leaders, activists, and politicians.

In 1959, he traveled to India for a month and had the chance to meet Gandhi’s family and supporters, whom he referred to in his memoirs as “the beacon of our strategy for nonviolent social change.” Martin Luther King produced a large number of books and essays during this time.

A letter sent from Birmingham Prison

In 1960, Martin Luther King and his family moved back to Atlanta, where he now serves as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church alongside his father. King and his SCLC comrades continued to play a vital role in many of the most important civil rights conflicts of the 1960s despite their new position.

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During the Birmingham campaign of 1963, when activists utilized a boycott, sit-ins, and marches to protest segregation, unfair hiring practices, and other injustices in one of America’s most racially divided cities, their doctrine of nonviolence was put to a particularly severe test.

Martin Luther King wrote the eloquent justification of civil disobedience in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a civil rights manifesto, to a group of white pastors who had criticized his tactics, after being detained on April 12 for his role.

Protest in Washington

Later that year, Martin Luther King Jr. collaborated with other religious and civil rights organizations to plan the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a nonviolent political demonstration intended to draw attention to the injustices Black Americans continued to experience throughout the nation.

The event, which took place on August 28 and drew between 200,000 and 300,000 people, is seen as a turning point in the history of the American civil rights movement and a contributor to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Speaking of “I Have a Dream

The “I Have a Dream” speech, which is Martin Luther King’s most well-known speech and the culmination of the March on Washington, is a passionate appeal for peace and equality and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of rhetoric.

He described his hope for a time when “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.'” He was speaking while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial to the president who had abolished slavery in the United States a century earlier.

The speech and march solidified Martin Luther King’s popularity both at home and abroad; He was chosen “Man of the Year” by TIME magazine later that year, and in 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, making history as the youngest recipient ever.

Martin Luther King’s increased notoriety in the spring of 1965 brought the violence between white segregationists and nonviolent protesters in Selma, Alabama, where the SCLC and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had planned a voter registration campaign, to the attention of the world.

The terrible incident, which was shown on television, horrified many Americans and motivated supporters from all over the country to congregate in Alabama and join Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery March, which was backed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who dispatched federal troops to maintain order.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in August of that year, ensuring that all African Americans would have access to the right to vote, which was first granted by the 15th Amendment.

Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination

Martin Luther King Jr. and the young radicals who rejected his nonviolent tactics and dedication to cooperating with the existing political system grew increasingly estranged as a result of the Selma events.

Martin Luther King expanded the scope of his advocacy to encompass topics like the Vietnam War and poverty among Americans of all colors while more radical Black activists like Stokely Carmichael gained notoriety. The Poor People’s Campaign, a large-scale march on the nation’s capital that was to be a component of King and the SCLC’s grandiose program, was launched in 1967.

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Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, in the evening. Martin Luther King had flown to Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers when he was shot and killed when he was standing on the balcony of a motel there. Following his passing, riots erupted in major cities all around the nation, and President Johnson proclaimed a day of national mourning.

James Earl Ray, an escaped prisoner and well-known racist, admitted to the murder and was given a 99-year jail term. Before his passing in 1998, he later renounced his confession and found some surprising supporters, including members of the Martin Luther King family.

MLK (Martin Luther King) Day

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a law establishing a federal holiday in the United States in Martin Luther King’s honor. This came about after years of advocacy by activists, Congressmen, and Coretta Scott King, among others.

Martin Luther King Day, which is observed on the third Monday in January, was first observed in 1986.

Quotes by Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote numerous books, including “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” “Why We Can’t Wait,” “Strength to Love,” “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and the posthumously released “Trumpet of Conscience” with a foreword by Coretta Scott King. His “I Have a Dream” speech is the most well-known piece of his writing.

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Did you know?

  • It’s believed that a major portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was improvised.
  • Using the catchphrase “I am a man,” Memphis workers demanded financial justice during a strike that would ultimately become Martin Luther King Jr.’s last crusade.
  • Martin Luther King wrote some of the foundational works of the civil rights movement while he was imprisoned, at first on the margins of a newspaper.
  • Ten years before his death, in 1958, Izola Ware Curry attacked the civil rights activist.
  • It took 15 years of fighting for MLK Day to be declared a national holiday.


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