Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.
King advanced civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and in 1957 became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
On October 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. Opposition to the Vietnam War brought him into conflict with the Johnson administration.
In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971; the holiday was enacted at the federal level by legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.
What was Martin Luther King Jr.’s early life and education?
Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a Baptist minister and his mother, Alberta Williams King, was a former schoolteacher. He had an older sister, Willie Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel Williams King.
King grew up in a financially secure and loving middle-class family. His father’s successful ministry provided the family with a comfortable living. King and his siblings attended segregated public schools in Georgia.
When King was about 6 years old, a close friend of his father’s, a white lawyer, told King how much he admired his preaching. However, the man added “But I just wish you wouldn’t refer to that man in heaven as a ‘colored man’ because God is not colored.” That conversation had an effect on King, strengthening his belief that racial segregation had to be fought wherever it appeared.
In 1944, at age 15, King began more formal studies at Morehouse College, the alma mater of both his father and maternal grandfather. Although he had not expected to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the ministry, he changed his mind under the mentorship of Morehouse’s president.
Dr. Benjamin Mays, an influential theologian and outspoken advocate for racial equality. After graduating in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He earned a divinity degree from Crozer in 1951 and went on to earn a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955.
What was the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
In 1954, King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which began when Rosa Parks refused to comply with Jim Crow laws and surrender her seat to a white man.
The boycott lasted for 381 days, during which King was arrested and his home was bombed. The campaign ended with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.
King’s role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.
The Montgomery bus boycott was a seminal event in the civil rights movement and brought King to the forefront of activism against racial segregation and discrimination. Some key facts about the Montgomery bus boycott:
- It started on December 1, 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
- The boycott was organized by Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon and other activists and led by Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.
- The boycott lasted 381 days, during which black residents refused to ride city buses in protest of segregation policies. They organized carpools and walked instead.
- The boycott successfully applied economic pressure on the city bus system and downtown business owners, causing significant financial losses.
- A federal court ruled that the segregation policies were unconstitutional, and on December 21, 1956, Montgomery buses were integrated.
- The boycott demonstrated the power of nonviolent civil disobedience and propelled King to national prominence in the civil rights movement.
- It inspired other protests and civil rights campaigns across the South.
The Montgomery bus boycott was a major victory in dismantling racial segregation in public transportation and galvanized the civil rights movement. King emerged as one of its most influential leaders.
What was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)?
In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. King led the SCLC until his death.
Some key facts about the SCLC:
- It coordinated and spearheaded nationwide civil rights activism aimed at dismantling segregation and discrimination against African Americans across the South.
- The SCLC organized nonviolent campaigns including sit-ins, boycotts, prayer pilgrimages, protest marches, and voter registration drives.
- In addition to King, prominent members and leaders included Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash, and Andrew Young among others.
- The SCLC was instrumental in major civil rights campaigns in Birmingham (1963), St. Augustine (1964), Selma (1965), and Chicago (1966).
- Its many successes led to civil rights legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- After King’s death, the SCLC struggled to maintain unity and relevance as the civil rights movement entered its next phases. The organization remains active today.
The creation of the SCLC expanded the civil rights struggle and established King as the moral voice of the movement. The organization played a central role in ending legalized racial discrimination in America.
What was the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?
On August 28, 1963, King delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” during the March on Washington for civil rights. The march brought together civil rights organizations to campaign for policies that would provide equal opportunity for African Americans.
Some key facts about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
- Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
- Called for an end to racism in America and advocated for equal rights for all citizens.
- Evoked the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the U.S. Constitution in powerful imagery.
- Shared King’s vision of freedom and equality, expressing hope that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal.”
- Emphasized the importance of nonviolent protest to fight for civil rights.
- Concluded with the iconic “I have a dream” refrain, envisioning a future of racial harmony and equality.
- Ranked as one of the best American speeches of the 20th century for its powerful rhetoric and masterful delivery.
- Helped build momentum for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination in public accommodations.
- Demonstrated King’s skills as an orator, his moral vision, and his belief in unifying people of all races, faiths, and backgrounds.
The “I Have a Dream” speech captured the aspirations of the civil rights movement and still resonates as a defining moment in American history.
What were some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophical and religious influences?
King was influenced by diverse intellectual and religious traditions that shaped his philosophy of nonviolent resistance:
- Christianity: King interpreted the Gospels as requiring social activism and resistance to injustice. He derived inspiration from the life of Jesus and teachings about turning the other cheek.
- Mahatma Gandhi: King adopted Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent civil disobedience used effectively against British rule in India. Gandhi showed how nonviolent mass protest could be morally and practically successful.
- Henry David Thoreau: King was inspired by Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” which endorsed breaking unjust laws. Thoreau argued moral conscience transcends compliance with an immoral state.
- Howard Thurman: An African American theologian who mentored King at Boston University. Thurman’s teachings on
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential and inspirational figures of the civil rights movement. Through his faith-based philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, King successfully fought racial discrimination and campaigned for equal rights for all Americans.
His leadership of seminal events like the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington cemented his place as the moral voice of the movement. King’s oratory skills, exemplified by his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, moved the nation and continue to stir hopes for racial unity and justice.
Although King did not live to see his dream fully realized, his tireless fight for freedom pioneered nonviolent activism and shaped policy gains like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Decades after his assassination in 1968, King’s vision of equality and human dignity still resonates and inspires civil rights advocacy worldwide. His courage, sacrifice, and achievements made Martin Luther King Jr. one of the most transformative leaders in American history.
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 college and what did he study?
King attended Morehouse College and received a B.A. in Sociology. He later went on to Crozer Theological Seminary and received a B.Div. He then attended Boston University where he earned a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.
What was the goal of King’s civil rights activism?
King’s goal was to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and achieve full equality in American society through nonviolent civil disobedience.
What civil rights campaigns was King involved in organizing?
Some major civil rights campaigns King organized include the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery Marches, and the Chicago Freedom Movement.
When did King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and where?
King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
How did King die and when?
King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
What awards and honors did King receive?
Among many honors, King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1977, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday in 1986.
What is King’s lasting legacy?
King’s legacy is as one of the most influential civil rights activists through his philosophy of nonviolent resistance which successfully drove social, legal and political change in America.