During the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, from December, 1955 until April 4, 1968, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced. Dr. King is widely regarded as America’s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence and one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history.
Drawing inspiration from both his Christian faith and the peaceful teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King led a nonviolent movement in the late 1950s and ‘60s to achieve legal equality for African Americans in the United States. While others were advocating for freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. used the power of words and acts of nonviolent resistance, such as protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience to achieve seemingly impossible goals. He went on to lead similar campaigns against poverty and international conflict, always maintaining fidelity to his principles that men and women everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal members of the human family.
Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ are among the most revered orations and writings in the English language. His accomplishments are now taught to American children of all races, and his teachings are studied by scholars and students worldwide. He is the only non-president to have a national holiday dedicated in his honor, and is the only non-president memorialized on the Great Mall in the nation’s capitol. He is memorialized in hundreds of statues, parks, streets, squares, churches and other public facilities around the world as a leader whose teachings are increasingly relevant to the progress of humankind.
Some of Dr. King’s most important achievements include:
In 1955, he was recruited to serve as spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was a campaign by the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama to force integration of the city’s bus lines. After 381 days of nearly universal participation by citizens of the Black community, many of whom had to walk miles to work each day as a result, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in transportation was unconstitutional.
In 1957, Dr. King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization designed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. He would serve as head of the SCLC until his assassination in 1968, a period during which he would emerge as the most important social leader of the modern American civil rights movement.
In 1963, he led a coalition of numerous civil rights groups in a nonviolent campaign aimed at Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was described as the “most segregated city in America.” The subsequent brutality of the city’s police, illustrated most vividly by television images of young blacks being assaulted by dogs and water hoses, led to a national outrage resulting in a push for unprecedented civil rights legislation. It was during this campaign that Dr. King drafted the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ the manifesto of Dr. King’s philosophy and tactics, which is today required-reading in universities worldwide.
Later in 1963, Dr. King was one of the driving forces behind the March for Jobs and Freedom, more commonly known as the ‘March on Washington,’ which drew over a quarter-million people to the national mall. It was at this march that Dr. King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which cemented his status as a social change leader and helped inspire the nation to act on civil rights. Dr. King was later named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
In 1964, at 35 years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech in Oslo is thought by many to be among the most powerful remarks ever delivered at the event, climaxing at one point with the oft-quoted phrase “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Also in 1964, partly due to the March on Washington, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, essentially eliminating legalized racial segregation in the United States. The legislation made it illegal to discriminate against Blacks or other minorities in hiring, public accommodations, education or transportation, areas which at the time were still very segregated in many places.
The next year, 1965, Congress went on to pass the Voting Rights Act, which was an equally important set of laws that eliminated the remaining barriers to voting for African Americans, who in some locales had been almost completely disenfranchised. This legislation resulted directly from the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., March for Voting Rights lead by Dr. King.
Between 1965 and 1968, Dr. King shifted his focus toward economic justice (which he highlighted by leading several campaigns in Chicago, Illinois) and international peace, which he championed by speaking out strongly against the Vietnam War. His work in these years culminated in the ‘Poor Peoples Campaign,’ which was a broad effort to assemble a multiracial coalition of impoverished Americans who would advocate for economic change.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s less than 13 years of nonviolent leadership ended abruptly and tragically on April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King’s body was returned to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, where his funeral ceremony was attended by high-level leaders of all races and political stripes.
Later in 1968, Dr. King’s wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, officially founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she dedicated to being a “living memorial” aimed at continuing Dr. King’s work on important social ills around the world.
Birth and family
Born at noon on Tuesday, January 15, 1929 at the family home in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the first son and second child born to Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. Also born to the Kings were first-born Christine, now Mrs. Isaac Farris, Sr., and the King’s third child, Rev. Alfred Daniel Williams King, now deceased.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s maternal grandparents were Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Jenny Parks Williams. His paternal grandparents were James Albert and Delia King, sharecroppers on a farm in Stockbridge, Georgia.
He married Coretta Scott, the younger daughter of Obadiah and Bernice McMurry Scott of Marion, Alabama, on June 18, 1953. The marriage ceremony took place on the lawn of the Scott’s home in Marion, Alabama. Rev. King, Sr. performed the service, with Mrs. Edythe Bagley, the sister of Coretta Scott King as maid of honor, and Rev. A.D. King, the brother of Martin Luther King, Jr., as best man.
Four children were born to Dr. and Mrs. King:
Yolanda Denise (November 17, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama)
Martin Luther III (October 23, 1957, Montgomery, Alabama)
Dexter Scott (January 30, 1961, Atlanta, Georgia)
Bernice Albertine (March 28, 1963, Atlanta, Georgia)
Upbringing and studies
The son, grandson, and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, Martin Luther King, Jr., named Michael King at birth, spent his first 12 years in the Auburn Avenue home that his parents, Rev. Michael King and Alberta Williams King, shared with his maternal grandparents, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams and Jeannie Celeste Williams. After Rev. Williams’ death in 1931, his son-in-law Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. became Ebenezer Baptist Church’s new pastor and gradually established himself as a major figure in state and national Baptist groups. The elder King began referring to himself (and later to his son) as ‘Martin Luther’ King.
During his undergraduate years at Atlanta’s Morehouse College (1944 to 1948), King gradually overcame his initial reluctance to accept his inherited calling. Morehouse President Benjamin E. Mays influenced King’s spiritual development, encouraging him to view Christianity as a potential force for progressive social change. He was ordained during his final semester at Morehouse, and by this time King had also taken his first steps toward political activism. He had responded to the postwar wave of anti-Black violence by proclaiming in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that African Americans were “entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens.” During his senior year King joined the Intercollegiate Council, an interracial student discussion group that met monthly at Atlanta’s Emory University.
After leaving Morehouse, King increased his understanding of progressive Christian thought while attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1951. Initially uncritical of liberal theology, he gradually moved toward Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy, which emphasized the intractability of social evil. Even as he continued to question and modify his own religious beliefs, he compiled an outstanding academic record and graduated at the top of his class.
In 1951 King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University’s School of Theology. By the time he completed his doctoral studies in 1955, King had refined his exceptional ability to draw upon a wide range of theological and philosophical texts to express his views with force and precision. His ability to infuse his oratory with established and original theological insights became evident in his expanding preaching activities in Boston-area-churches and at Ebenezer, where he assisted his father during school vacations.
During his stay in Boston, King also met and courted Coretta Scott, an Alabama-born Antioch College graduate who was then a student at the New England Conservatory of Music. On June 18, 1953, the two students were married in Marion, Alabama, where Scott’s family lived.
Bus boycott sparks a movement
Although he considered pursuing an academic career, King decided in 1954 to accept an offer to become the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, when Montgomery’s Black leaders, including Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, and Ralph Abernathy formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to protest the arrest of NAACP official Rosa Park for refusing to give up her bus seat to a White man, they selected King to head the new group.
In his role as the primary spokesman of the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, King utilized the leadership abilities he had gained from his religious background and academic training to forge a distinctive protest strategy that involved the mobilization of Black churches and skillful appeals for White support. With the encouragement of Bayard Rustin, Glenn Smiley, William Stuart Nelson and other veteran pacifists, King also became a firm advocate of Mohandas Gandhi’s precepts of nonviolence, which he combined with Christian social gospel ideas.
After the United States Supreme Court outlawed Alabama bus segregation laws in Browder v. Gayle in late 1956, King sought to expand the nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South. In 1957 he joined with C. K. Steele, Fred Shuttlesworth and T.J. Jemison in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King as president, to coordinate civil rights activities throughout the region. The publication of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story further contributed to King’s rapid emergence as a national civil rights leader.
King’s rise to fame was not without personal consequences. In 1958, King was the victim of his first assassination attempt. Although his house had been bombed several times during the Montgomery bus boycott, it was while signing copies of Stride Toward Freedom that Izola Ware Curry stabbed him with a letter opener.
Laying the groundwork for nonviolent change
One of the key aspects of King’s leadership was his ability to coalesce support from many types of organizations including labor unions, peace organizations, southern reform organizations, and religious groups. As early as 1956, labor unions, such as the United Packinghouse Workers and the United Auto Workers contributed to the Montgomery Improvement Association and peace activists such as Homer Jack alerted their associates to the activities of the MIA. Activists from southern organizations such as Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School and Anne Braden’s Southern Conference Education Fund were in frequent contact with King. In addition, his extensive ties to the National Baptist Convention provided support from churches all over the nation; and his advisor, Stanley Levison insured broad support from Jewish groups and trade unions.
King’s recognition of the link between segregation and colonialism resulted in alliances with groups fighting oppression outside the U.S., especially in Africa. In March 1957, King traveled to Ghana at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah to attend the nation’s independence ceremony. Shortly after returning from Ghana, King joined the American Committee on Africa agreeing to serve as vice chairman of an International Sponsoring Committee for a day of protest against South Africa’s apartheid government. Later at a SCLC sponsored event honoring Kenyan labor leader Tom Mboya, King further articulated the connections between the African American freedom struggle and those abroad: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
During 1959 he increased his understanding of Gandhian ideas during a month-long visit to India sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. With Coretta and MIA historian Lawrence D. Reddick in tow, King met with many Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Writing after his return, King stated: “I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Atlanta, Birmingham, Washington, Selma
Early in 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. moved his family, which now included two children, Yolanda and Martin Luther King III, to Atlanta in order to be nearer SCLC headquarters in that city and to become co-pastor, with his father, of Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Kings’ third child, Dexter, was born in 1961, and their fourth, Bernice, in 1963.
In 1961-62, Dr. and Mrs. King helped lead protests against racial injustice in Albany, Georgia.
During 1963, King reasserted his preeminence within the African American freedom struggle through his leadership of the Birmingham campaign. Initiated by SCLC and its affiliate, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Birmingham demonstrations were the most massive civil rights protest that had yet occurred. With the assistance of Fred Shuttlesworth and other local Black leaders and with little competition from SNCC and other civil rights groups, SCLC officials were able to orchestrate the Birmingham protests to achieve maximum national impact. King’s decision to intentionally allow himself to be arrested for leading a demonstration on April 12 prodded the Kennedy administration to intervene in the escalating protests.
A widely quoted ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ displayed his distinctive ability to influence public opinion by appropriating ideas from the Bible, the Constitution, and other canonical texts. During May, televised pictures of police using dogs and fire hoses against young demonstrators generated a national outcry against White segregationist officials in Birmingham. The brutality of Birmingham officials and the refusal of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace to allow the admission of Black students at the University of Alabama prompted President Kennedy to introduce major civil rights legislation.
King’s speech at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom attended by more than 200,000 people, was the culmination of a wave of civil rights protest activity that extended even to northern cities. Closing his address with extemporaneous remarks, he insisted that he had not lost hope: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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.’” He appropriated the familiar words of ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’ before concluding, “when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
Although there was much elation after the March on Washington, less than a month later, the movement was shocked by another act of senseless violence. On September 15, 1963, a dynamite blast killed four young schoolgirls at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. King delivered the eulogy for three of the four girls, reflecting: “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murders.”
King’s ability to focus national attention on orchestrated confrontations with racist authorities, combined with his oration at the 1963 March on Washington, made him the most influential African American spokesperson of the first half of the 1960s. Named Time magazine’s Man of the Year at the end of 1963, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. The acclaim King received strengthened his stature among civil rights leaders but also prompted Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover to step up his effort to damage King’s reputation. Hoover, with the approval of President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, established phone taps and bugs.
The Alabama protests reached a turning point on March 7 when state police attacked a group of demonstrators at the start of a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Carrying out Gov. Wallace’s orders, the police used tear gas and clubs to turn back the marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma. Unprepared for the violent confrontation, King alienated some activists when he decided to postpone the continuation of the Selma to Montgomery March until he had received court approval, but the march, which finally secured federal court approval, attracted several thousand civil rights sympathizers, Black and White, from all regions of the nation. On March 25, King addressed the arriving marchers from the steps of the capitol in Montgomery. The march and the subsequent killing of a White participant, Viola Liuzzo, as well as the earlier murders of Rev. James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson dramatized the denial of Black voting rights and spurred passage during the following summer of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Beyond Civil Rights: Fighting against poverty and militarism
After the successful voting rights march in Alabama, King was unable to garner similar support for his effort to confront the problems of northern urban Blacks. Early in 1966 he, together with local activist Al Raby, launched a major campaign against poverty and other urban problems and moved his family into an apartment in Chicago’s Black ghetto. As King shifted the focus of his activities to the North, however, he discovered that the tactics used in the South were not as effective in Chicago.
King’s influence was tempered by the increasingly caustic tone of Black militancy of the period after 1965. Black radicals increasingly turned away from the Gandhian precepts of King toward the Black Nationalism of Malcolm X, whose posthumously published autobiography and speeches reached large audiences after his assassination in February 1965. King refused to abandon his firmly rooted beliefs about racial integration and nonviolence.
In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, King dismissed the claim of Black Power advocates “to be the most revolutionary wing of the social revolution taking place in the United States.” But he acknowledged that they responded to a psychological need among African Americans he had not previously addressed.
“Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery,” King wrote. “The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation.”
Indeed, even as his popularity declined, King spoke out strongly against American involvement in the Vietnam War, making his position public in an address, ‘Beyond Vietnam,’ on April 4, 1967 at New York’s Riverside Church. King’s involvement in the anti-war movement reduced his ability to influence national racial policies and made him a target of further.
FBI investigations. Nevertheless, he became ever more insistent that his version of Gandhian nonviolence and social gospel Christianity was the most appropriate response to the problems of Black Americans.
In December 1967, King announced the formation of the Poor People’s Campaign, designed to prod the federal government to strengthen its antipoverty efforts. King and other SCLC workers began to recruit poor people and antipoverty activists to come to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of improved antipoverty programs. This effort was in its early stages when King became involved in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in Tennessee. On March 28, 1968, as King led thousands of sanitation workers and sympathizers on a march through downtown Memphis, Black youngsters began throwing rocks and looting stores. This outbreak of violence led to extensive press criticisms of King’s entire antipoverty strategy.