Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a prominent Baptist minister and his mother, Alberta Williams King, was a schoolteacher.
King grew up in a secure and loving middle-class family. His parents instilled strong values in him and his siblings, teaching them the importance of education, self-confidence, and social justice. King excelled in school, skipping ninth and twelfth grade to enroll early at Morehouse College at just 15 years old.
|Enrolls at Morehouse College at age 15
|Graduates from Morehouse College with a B.A. in Sociology
|Graduates from Crozer Theological Seminary with a B.Div. degree
|Earns a Ph.D. from Boston University in Systematic Theology
During his college and graduate school years, King absorbed the intellectual and political philosophies that shaped his vision for activism. He studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, which greatly influenced his leadership later on.
Marriage and Family
While studying at Boston University for his doctorate, King met Coretta Scott, an accomplished singer and musician studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. They dated for a few years and were married on June 18, 1953 in Marion, Alabama.
The Kings had four children together:
- Yolanda King, born in 1955
- Martin Luther King III, born in 1957
- Dexter Scott King, born in 1961
- Bernice King, born in 1963
Coretta was extremely supportive of King’s increasingly visible leadership role in the civil rights movement, though this often meant he had to be away from home for stretches of time.
|Marries Coretta Scott
|First daughter Yolanda born
|First son Martin III born
|Son Dexter Scott born
|Youngest child Bernice born
Early Activism in Montgomery
After graduating from Boston University, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. As a young minister new to Montgomery, he was not immediately thrust into the emerging civil rights movement. However, just over a year after his arrival the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, sparked by the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. The city’s black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to coordinate the boycott and elected King as its president.
In his role leading the 382-day boycott, King demonstrated his brilliance as an orator, organizer, tactician, and unifier. His stirring speeches at churches and mass meetings galvanized the black community. King became the face of the boycott, channeling the anger and weariness of Montgomery’s black citizens into a powerful yet peaceful call for dignity, justice and equality.
The boycott ultimately achieved its goal of desegregating public transportation in Montgomery. The victory propelled the young Rev. King onto the national stage as a visionary leader of the civil rights movement.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In 1957, King and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This organization aimed to utilize the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to lead nonviolent protests for civil rights reform across the South. The group wanted to capitalize on the successful Montgomery boycott. King served as the SCLC’s first president.
Through the SCLC, King traveled extensively throughout the South advancing the civil rights cause. He often spoke of the 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.”
The Sit-In Protests of 1960
Early 1960 saw the rise of the student sit-in movement to protest segregation at lunch counters. Inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina, students at six historically black colleges in Atlanta began similar actions aimed at integrating eating establishments. Dr. King publicly expressed pride in the students’ nonviolent activism.
When the students staged a major sit-in demonstration on March 15, 1960, King joined them along with around 200 fellow clergyman. The peaceful protesters endured taunts and attacks inside the restaurants and arrest once they exited the buildings. But the Atlanta sit-in movement sparked off similar non-violent actions to successfully desegregate public facilities across the South.
The Albany Campaign (1961-62)
In late 1961, King spearheaded the Albany Campaign aimed at achieving integration of public spaces in Albany, Georgia. The campaign attracted attention for its mass nonviolent resistance in the form of boycotts and demonstrations.
Police Chief Laurie Pritchett cracked down harshly on the protesters but carefully avoided situations that might have created public sympathy for the movement. After nearly a year, the Albany Campaign ended without achieving any of its goals. This disappointing outcome taught King about the difficulties of penetrating entrenched racism in the Deep South.
Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)
In April 1963 King was arrested for leading sit-ins and unauthorized marches against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While in solitary confinement, he penned an epistle defending the use of nonviolent civil disobedience directed at unjust laws. This “Letter from Birmingham Jail” stands as a classic defense of civil disobedience and one of the most important writings of the civil rights era.
The March on Washington (1963)
On August 28, 1963, King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 people gathered at the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his rousing address, King painted a visionary picture of an America where people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The successful March on Washington represented the zenith of cooperation between civil rights organizations and delivered momentum for the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The Birmingham Church Bombing (1963)
In one of the darkest moments of the civil rights movement, four young girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sunday, September 15, 1963. King rushed to Birmingham to console the stricken black community. He also attended the funeral of three of the girls. Outraged over the bombing, protesters across the country demanded protection for the lives of African Americans and punishment of the perpetrators.
The St. Augustine Movement (1963-64)
For much of 1963 and 1964, King engaged in vibrant protests and relentless public demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida – at that time an extremely racially divided city. Hundreds of protestors were arrested during the St. Augustine Movement’s “wade-ins” and marches aimed at integrating area beaches, hotels, and other public spaces.
The positive changes in St. Augustine represented an important victory for the civil rights movement coming just a year after King’s frustrating Albany Campaign. King’s inspiring leadership proved vital in confronting the city’s long history of violent racism.
The Selma Voting Rights Campaign (1965)
When activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was slain by an Alabama state trooper in February 1965, King made the strategic decision to make voting rights the central cause of SCLC’s efforts. This led to the Selma Voting Rights Campaign centered around protests march demanding protections for African Americans trying to register to vote across the South. Protest marches were met with brutal repression from state troopers.
The shocking images of “Bloody Sunday” culminating in marchers brutalized while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress into passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark legislation struck down restrictions aimed at disenfranchising black voters and authorized federal oversight of voter registration in states where black voter turnout remained low.
The Chicago Campaign (1965–67)
In 1965, King and the SCLC shifted their energies from the South to Chicago where they organized rallies and marches to expose de facto segregation and inequality in housing, living conditions, and public services in inner-city neighborhoods. However, King met unexpected resistance from Mayor Richard Daley and other city officials unwilling to work with him, as well as militants and gang members indifferent to his message of nonviolence.
After struggling for months to achieve victories in Chicago, King decided to leave the city, which he described as a “dark, evil, and bitter nightmare.” King’s positive reputation suffered due to his lack of progress in Chicago, considered by some to be a failure for him and the civil rights movement. But King still had trust in nonviolent strategies if applied on a national level rather than just in the South.
Opposition to the Vietnam War (1965-68)
Starting in 1965, King began publicly questioning America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He delivered an address at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death. In “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, King denounced the U.S. for intervening in the Vietnam civil war and the massive funding spent on the conflict which could have instead aided America’s domestic poor.
King saw war as incompatible with his gospel of love and nonviolence. His strong stances against the war and American imperialism led to increased animosity and declining support from previously friendly groups in the last year of his life.
The Poor People’s Campaign (1968)
In 1968, King launched what would become known as the Poor People’s Campaign to confront economic inequality for all disadvantaged citizens of various backgrounds. The plan involved bringing thousands of impoverished Americans from urban slums and rural regions to camp out on the National Mall making demands for fair wages, unemployment insurance, and other alleviation of poverty.
Tragically, King did not live to see his last ambitious act of civil disobedience through to completion. But Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King followed through with the demonstration for six weeks from May to June 1968 on behalf of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis where King was assassinated.
Assassination in Memphis (1968)
On April 3, 1968, King returned to Memphis to support striking African American sanitation workers where he would deliver his prophetic last speech containing the line, “I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land.” The next day on April 4th, King was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by escaped convict James Earl Ray.
News of King’s shocking assassination sparked national mourning, riots and unrest in cities across America. President Johnson declared April 7th a national day of mourning. Two months later, Ray plead guilty to King’s murder and received a life sentence. Almost immediately, speculation arose about various conspiracy theories though none definitively proven with evidence.
Funeral and Burial
Coretta Scott King organized a public, dignified funeral reminiscent of those held for heads of state. An estimated 120,000 mourners came to view King’s open casket in Atlanta. After the funeral, she led a procession through the streets containing King’s casket on a wooden farm cart pulled by two mules.
He was interred at South View Cemetery. Later in 1998, King’s body was moved to its final resting place in a special crypt alongside fellow civil rights organizers at The King Center just over a mile from where he was born. The site serves as a living memorial preserving the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Impact and Legacy
Martin Luther King Jr. played a seminal role in advancing civil rights through his character, visionary rhetoric, and orchestration of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. The iconic minister and activist unified African Americans and their supporters to challenge the southern system of legalized racial discrimination in public facilities, transportation, housing, voting rights, education and employment.
Many historians view the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 as testaments to the success of King’s noble efforts. Schools, streets and numerous public buildings and monuments across America now bear his name, commemorating his tireless struggle against inequality and injustice.
Among hundreds of awards and recognitions, King posthumously won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.
Half a century after his death, King remains one of the most admired public figures in American history whose words still carry weight and moral authority. He serves as an inspiration to civil rights activists pursing social justice causes around the world through principled, peaceful dissent and civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality and human rights in America. His bold, impassioned rhetoric and strategic direction of civil rights campaigns cemented his legacy as one of the most influential activists and leaders in American history.
King played a pivotal role in raising awareness of racial injustice and peacefully pushing legislation ending legal segregation across the South. The landmark civil rights reforms achieved during the 1960s trace directly back to his nonviolent marches, sit-ins, boycotts and unwavering calls for dignity, empathy and equality.
Over a half-century after his tragic assassination at just 39 years old, King’s message promoting justice, unity and understanding between all human beings still resonates deeply in America and around the world. His remarkable, courageous campaigns stand out as moral exemplars for enacting positive social transformation through compassion, principle and redemptive suffering.
Frequently Asked Questions About Martin Luther King
When and where was Martin Luther King Jr. born?
Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Where did King attend university?
King attended Morehouse College in Atlanta where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 1948. He then earned degrees in Divinity and Theology from Crozer Theological Seminary (1951) and Boston University (1955).
What was King’s profession?
King served as a Baptist pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery from 1954 to 1960 and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta from 1960 until his death in 1968.
When did King first become involved in the civil rights movement?
In 1955, King rose to prominence leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted over a year until the city desegregated public transportation.
What civil rights organization did King establish?
In 1957, King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and served as its first president until his death. The SCLC organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns for civil rights across the South.
What is King most known for?
King is best known for advancing civil rights through his powerful and inspiring speeches, his advocacy of civil disobedience in pursuit of social justice based on Christian nonviolent ethics, and leading such seminal campaigns as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), March on Washington (1963), Birmingham Campaign (1963), and Selma Voting Rights Marches (1965).