Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968) was a Baptist minister who became a civil rights leader and speaker, promoting nonviolent activities to achieve equal rights for African-Americans. His vision and legacy was his ability to motivate local and federal government lawmakers to end racial discrimination and to create economic justice for poor Americans in all aspects of their lives including housing, employment and education.
King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael Luther King, Sr. and Alberta King. Martin’s given name, at birth, was Michael, like his father’s, but his father changed both of their given names to Martin after a visit to Germany in honor of the Protestant leader, Martin Luther.
King’s father and grandfather were ministers, both pastoring the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Young Martin followed in his family’s footsteps and chose the ministry as his vocation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. held many jobs and positions throughout his lifetime that led him to be the leader he was to the African-American community:
The first position Martin Luther King, Jr. held was that of a student. He attended public schools in Atlanta and was given advanced placement to Morehouse College when he was only 15. His father and grandfather had also attended Morehouse College.
Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1947 he went from being a student to being officially ordained as Reverend in the Baptist religion at the age of 19. He then became a student again continuing his college education.
After earning a B.A. degree in Sociology from Morehouse College in 1948, he enrolled at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania where he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951.
He then moved on to Boston University to study for his doctorate where he met Coretta Scott, a singer and civil rights activist, who was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1953, he married Coretta and then, in 1954, he accepted the call to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in his new bride’s home state of Alabama, in the city of Montgomery.
He ultimately garnered a Doctorate of Philosophy in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955.
King stepped into the public eye in 1955, while a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, a highly-segregated city where almost half the citizens were African-American. He became President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group of local black ministers and community leaders which was formed to improve race relations in Montgomery and to manage a bus boycott. The bus boycott had resulted from the Rosa Parks bus incident where Rosa, the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), refused to give up her seat to a white woman. King's involvement in the 381-day boycott led the Supreme Court of the United States to rule that bus segregation was unconstitutional.
In 1957, King joined with about 60 other civil rights leaders in Atlanta to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This organization was formed to battle segregation and achieve civil rights of African-Americans across the United States using civil disobedience such as sit-ins and demonstrations.
At this time, he:
King was successful in his attempts to de-segregate the city of Birmingham, Alabama and continued to press for the rights of African Americans across the country by becoming a spokesperson delivering speeches and leading successful marches on the government.
King’s inspiration came from Howard Thurman, a civil rights leader and member of Boston University's School of Theology faculty, and Mahatma Gandhi, with his philosophy of non-violence to fight injustice and inequality.
In 1960 he left his pastoral position in Alabama, returned to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia and began a full-time pursuit of civil rights change through nonviolent means. Throughout the 1960s, as he worked in the civil rights movement, he also continued to act as a co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
King continued his civil rights leadership in the fight to end segregation by providing leadership to such groups and events as:
Throughout his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was also an author. He wrote many books and articles about his beliefs and experiences in the civil rights movement while fighting for African-Americans including:
Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the most famous civil rights activist of all time, the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize at the time he received it, a pastor and a speaker, but he was also a family man.
King met his wife, Coretta Scott in Boston, where he was working on his doctorate (Doctor of Philosophy in Systematic Theology) at Boston University. They were married on June 18, 1953 at her parents’ home in Heiberger, Alabama.
Martin and Coretta had four children – two sons and two daughters:
Yolanda was born on November 17, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. The first of four King children, Yolanda grew up to be an actress and human rights activist, working not only with the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., but also with Habitat for Humanity, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Heart Association, the American Stroke Association, and the Human Rights Campaign. And, along with her mother, Yolanda King was also an activist for gay rights.
Yolanda King received a BA from Smith College, a Master’s degree from New York University, and an Honorary Doctorate from Marywood University. She passed away on May 15, 2007 at the age of 51.
Martin and Coretta's eldest son, Martin was born on October 23, 1957 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Martin Luther King III, following the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he majored in political science and history.
MLK III is the only child of MLK Jr. to be married and have a child of his own. He married Arndrea Waters in May of 2006, and their first child, Yolanda Renee King, was born on May 25, 2008. Named after her late aunt, Yolanda Renee King is the only grandchild of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Sadly, neither of them got to meet their granddaughter before Coretta or Martin died.
Dexter was born in Atlanta on January 30, 1961. He was named after the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where his father served as pastor before moving to Georgia. His middle name was his mother’s maiden name. Although he did not graduate, he also attended Morehouse College in Atlanta for a time, where he studied business administration. He is an actor, a documentary film maker, an animal rights activist, and a vegan.
Bernice, Martin and Coretta’s youngest daughter, was born March 28, 1963 in Atlanta. She is the only one of his children to become a pastor. Having graduated from Spelman College with a degree in psychology, King went on to earn a Master’s of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology and a Doctorate of Law from Emory University School of Law.
She became the first woman elected to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; but, she left the position due to disagreements she had with the organization's other leaders. She is a member of the Georgia Bar and a minister at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, GA. Bernice also works as a mediator, coordinating nonviolent conflict resolution conferences and women and family conferences.
The civil rights movement lasted from around 1955 to 1968. Its goals were to abolish racial discrimination in many areas including public transportation, employment, voting, and education.
Non-violent protests and civil disobedience during this time caused many highly-publicized crisis situations where the government was forced to take a stand or to take action with legislation. These situations showed the inequities and injustice that was happening to African-Americans. The protests were done in a non-violent way using sit-ins, marches, and boycotts.
Notable legislation during this time included:
The civil rights movement was concerned with the basics of dignity, respect, freedom, and equality.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was very successful at fighting segregation and using non-violent actions to achieve the rights of African-Americans as equals in the United States. Three of his major victories were the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.
In 1955, King was a member of the executive committee of the NAACP and he founded the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in conjunction with the executive members and officers of the NAACP's Montgomery chapter. In 1955, as President of the MIA, he led the nonviolent Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ultimately led to desegregation of buses.
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights leaders, activists and pastors to guide and coordinate civil rights activities. King was elected president of the SCLC.
In early 1968 King became involved in a growing civil rights demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee. On February 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis were protesting their terrible working conditions, discrimination, and low pay. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the workers demanded union recognition, higher wages and an end to discrimination.
Martin Luther King went to Memphis three times to support the sanitation workers’ demands for job safety, better wages and benefits, as well as union recognition:
The sanitation workers strike lasted for 64 days and grew into one of the major civil rights events. The strike attracted the national news media as well as other activists who joined the cause, like community leaders and members of the clergy. The strike ended on April 12, 1968, and the city of Memphis agreed to the workers’ demands, even though more strikes had to be threatened to make them honor the agreement.
Martin Luther King's greatest achievement was his life of standing against discrimination and violent protest in the civil rights movement which occurred from 1955 to 1968. His strong belief in non-violent protest helped set the tone of the movement. Boycotts, protests, and marches were eventually effective, and significant legislation was passed against racial discrimination.
In 1964 the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, incorporating the rights demonstrated for during the civil rights movement including voting rights, labor rights and desegregation.
Several of King's non-violent actions had greatly increased the visibility of the civil rights movement:
Other major achievements by Martin Luther King Jr. included:
Martin Luther King received over fifty honorary college degrees as well as several prestigious awards during or because of the thirteen years that he was active in the civil rights movement:
Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964 for successfully using non-violent actions to fight racial equality.
Alfred Nobel started the famed Nobel prizes. In his will, he stated the Nobel Prize for Peace should be awarded to a person who
"shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
Nobel also said that the individual who receives this award should be chosen by five people in the Norwegian Parliament.
Throughout his life, King greatly supported peaceful movements and he sought to establish peace among all types of people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored to have received this award, and gave a powerful and gracious acceptance speech. King was, among other great accomplishments, a wonderful orator who had an immense impact on the people to whom he spoke. As he addressed the crowd, he made sure to note that he realized that there was still a fight ahead for African-Americans to ensure that they received equal rights, and that he planned to be there every step of the way.
In 11 years with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King traveled more than six million miles to give over 25,000 speeches. Somehow, even with that schedule, he found time to author six books and many articles for newspapers and magazines.
His presence and leadership were so influential that thousands of people participated in the non-violent protests he led or in which he participated. One of the most famous marches was the August 28, 1963 gathering of one-quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." This was where King made his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream."
Here are some excerpts of the "I Have a Dream" speech:
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
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 one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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 their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most popular and respected civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s. King's life was not without its difficulty; he was a unifying figure for some and a polarizing figure for others. His life was threatened numerous times. His home was bombed, he was arrested many times, and he was assaulted numerous times.
On September 20, 1958, while signing his newly-published book at a bookstore in Harlem, Izola Curry, a 42 year old black woman, stabbed Martin Luther King, Jr. with a letter opener.
The stabbing was quite severe, and if Martin Luther King, Jr. had made any certain movements, he might have died. In fact, the doctor, Doctor Maynard said to him,
"If you had sneezed during all those hours of waiting, your aorta would have been punctured and you would have drowned in your own blood."
However, he was rushed to the Harlem Hospital, where his life was saved. Curry was supposedly mentally ill, and King has been quoted as saying,
"I think she needs help. I'm not angry at her."
Certainly, his words show how peaceful and forgiving he truly was. Curry was indicted for attempted murder; however, they did eventually decide that she was mentally ill and she was sent away to the Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane.
King was in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, staying at the Lorraine Motel in room 306. In the evening, King was standing on the balcony, when he was struck by a bullet. He was hit in the neck by a single bullet that was believed to have been shot by James Earl Ray. It is believed that Ray dropped the Remington 760 Gamesmater rifle and a small personal radio which had his prison ID engraved on it, making it possible for authorities to identify Ray as the assassin.
King was rushed to the Saint Joseph Hospital. Although doctors attempted to save his life, he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival. Martin Luther King was only thirty nine years old at the time of his death.
Martin Luther King’s death resulted in multiple riots throughout various cities of the United States. His death accelerated the development of African-American rights in the country. King became a martyr for the cause.
James Earl Ray was born on March 10, 1928. He grew up in Alton, Illinois. His family was poor, and thus his childhood was one of poverty. When he was fifteen, he left school and subsequently joined the United States Army. He joined the Army during World War II, and he spent his service in Germany.
After the war, he turned to a life of crime. In 1949, he was convicted of burglary in California. Although it is unknown if this was his first crime, it was the first crime of which he was convicted. In 1952, he then served two years in prison for the armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, he was convicted of mail fraud. He continued his life of crime, and in 1959, he was convicted of another armed robbery. This time the armed robbery was in Missouri.
In 1959, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison for multiple and repeated offenses. Unfortunately, in 1967, he was able to escape from prison. He accomplished this by hiding inside a truck that was carrying bread from the bakery in the prison.
James Earl Ray was a racist, and it is widely believed that he killed Martin Luther King, Jr. because King was a representation of African American equality hope in the country. It is assumed that Ray disliked the changes and advancements that were being granted towards African-Americans, and he may have thought that if he killed one of the leaders of the movement, he could stop the change.
At first, Ray confessed to the crime. However, three days later, he attempted to recant this confession. In his first trial, he entered a guilty plea. He was sentenced for ninety-nine years in prison. Ray stated that he took the guilty plea on the advice of his lawyer to avoid the death penalty and that, in fact, he was not guilty.
He attempted to blame the crime on a different man that he met in Montreal and said that this man was deeply involved in the crime. He also tried to link his brother to the assassination. Ray spent the remainder of his years in prison trying to withdraw his original plea and receive a new trial.
James Earl Ray died in 1998 at the age of 70, proclaiming his innocence in the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr.
While James Earl Ray was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King, Jr, some people believe the death of Dr. King was an extensive plot and a very well orchestrated conspiracy by the federal government to use Ray to end the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and to end the uprising that he was causing in the struggle for civil rights for all people.
Those that believe in the conspiracy theory claim that James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, did not have the resources to stalk and kill a very well protected prominent civil rights leader without assistance from a more established outside source. Dexter King, one of Dr. King’s sons, believed that there was government involvement in the death of Dr. King and he visited James Earl Ray while he was in prison to support the fact that he didn’t believe that Ray killed his father.
Although James Earl Ray was convicted of the assassination and died in prison serving a ninety-nine year sentence for the assassination, there have been a number of developments that make the assassination remain a mystery.
The discovery that a local diner owner by the name of Lloyd Jowers was a co-conspirator in the assassination plot made the death of King even more nebulous.
Government officials investigated Lloyd Jowers claims but were not able to determine that there was any truth to his claims.
The year after King's death, Coretta Scott King, his widow, organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change.
The motel where he was shot is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
On August 22, 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was opened to the public in the southwest portion of the National Mall in Washington D.C. The memorial was scheduled for dedication on August 28th, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King had given his famous "I Have a Dream" speech; however, due to Hurricane Irene, the dedication was delayed until October 16th 2011.
The white granite memorial is the first memorial honoring an African-American on or near the National Mall. It was originally proposed in 1968 by King's fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. In 1996 Congress authorized that the memorial could be built if the fraternity could raise the $100 million needed to break ground. The site for the memorial was approved in 1999 and the groundbreaking ceremony was held in 2006. A full-time fundraising effort was initiated which generated over $108 million by 2008 from private citizens including $10 million in matching funds from Congress. According to the National Park Service, the total project cost was originally estimated at $120 million.
After Martin Luther King's death, labor unions and several Congressional representatives started to push for a federal holiday to honor King. Initial efforts were unsuccessful; however, after Congress received a petition with six million signatures, a bill was passed in both the House and Senate.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law as a legal holiday to be observed on the third Monday in January to commemorate the birthday of King. The holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986 and was observed nationwide for the first time in 2000.
In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed legislation into law called the King Holiday and Service Act which encourages volunteers to donate their time for a day of service on Martin Luther King Day to provide solutions to important national problems.
For a time perspective of the details of Martin Luther King Jr's life, check out the Martin Luther King Jr. Timeline on YourDictionary.