Biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Leader

Martin Luther King memorial

Win McNamee / Getty Images

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Jan. 15, 1929—April 4, 1968) was the charismatic leader of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He directed the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, which attracted scrutiny by a wary, divided nation, but his leadership and the resultant Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation brought him fame. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate nonviolent protests and delivered over than 2,500 speeches addressing racial injustice, but his life was cut short by an assassin in 1968.

Fast Facts: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Known For: Leader of the U.S. civil rights movement

Also Known As: Michael Lewis King Jr.

Born: Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia

Parents: Michael King Sr., Alberta Williams

Died: April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee

Education: Crozer Theological Seminary, Boston University

Published Works: "Stride Toward Freedom," "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

Awards and Honors: Nobel Peace Prize

Spouse: Coretta Scott

Children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, Bernice

Notable Quote: "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 the content of their character."

Early Life

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael King Sr., pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta Williams, a Spelman College graduate and former schoolteacher. King lived with his parents, a sister, and a brother in the Victorian home of his maternal grandparents.

Martin—named Michael Lewis until he was 5—thrived in a middle-class family, playing football and baseball, delivering newspapers, and doing odd jobs. Their father was involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had led a successful campaign for equal wages for white and black Atlanta teachers. When Martin's grandfather died in 1931, Martin's father became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, serving for 44 years.

After attending the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin In 1934, King Sr. changed his and his son's name from Michael King to Martin Luther King, after the Protestant reformist. King Sr. was inspired by Martin Luther's courage confronting institutionalized evil.

College

King entered Morehouse College at 15. He was uncertain about following in the footsteps of the family's clergymen, questioning religion's relevance in addressing segregation and poverty among his people. King rebelled against a life of service to God, playing pool, drinking beer, and underachieving his first two years at Morehouse.

King studied sociology and considered law school while reading voraciously. He was fascinated by Henry David Thoreau's essay "On Civil Disobedience" and its idea of noncooperation with an unjust system. King decided that social activism was his calling and religion the best means to that end. He was ordained a minister in February 1948, the year he graduated with a sociology degree at 19.

Seminary

In September 1948, King entered predominately white Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania. He read works by great theologians but despaired that no philosophy was complete within itself. Then, hearing a lecture about Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, he became captivated by his concept of passive resistance. King concluded that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through nonviolence, could be a powerful weapon for his people.

In 1951, King graduated at the top of his class with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. In September he enrolled in doctoral studies at Boston University's School of Theology.

Marriage

While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a singer studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. Coretta hesitated about dating a minister but was persuaded when King said she had all the qualities he desired in a wife. The couple married June 18, 1953. King's father performed the ceremony at Coretta's family home in Marion, Alabama. They returned to Boston to complete their degrees.

King was invited to preach in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which had a history of civil rights activism. The pastor was retiring. King captivated the congregation and in April 1954 became pastor.

Coretta was committed to her husband's work but was conflicted about her role. King wanted her to stay home with their four children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

When King arrived in Montgomery to join the Dexter Avenue church, Rosa Parks, secretary of the local NAACP chapter, had been arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Parks' Dec. 1, 1955, arrest presented the perfect opportunity to make a case for desegregating the transit system.

E.D. Nixon, former head of the local NAACP chapter, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a close friend of King, contacted King and other clergymen to plan a citywide bus boycott. The group drafted demands and stipulated that no African-American would ride the buses on Dec 5.

That day, nearly 20,000 black citizens refused bus rides. Because blacks comprised 90 percent of the passengers, most buses were empty. When the boycott ended 381 days later, Montgomery's transit system was nearly bankrupt. Then on Dec. 20, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that enforcing segregation on public transit was unconstitutional.

Buoyed by success, the movement's leaders met in January 1957 in Atlanta and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate nonviolent protests through black churches . King was elected president and held the post until his death.

In early 1958, King's first book, "Stride Toward Freedom," was published. While signing books in Harlem, New York, King was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman. As he recovered, he visited India's Gandhi Peace Foundation in February 1959 to refine his protest strategies.

Birmingham

In April 1963, King and the SCLC joined Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in a nonviolent campaign to end segregation and force Birmingham, Alabama, businesses to hire blacks.Fire hoses and vicious dogs were unleashed on the protesters by “Bull” Connor's policemen. King was thrown into jail, where he wrote "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," affirming his peaceful philosophy.

The brutal images galvanized the nation. Money pored in to support the protesters; white sympathizers joined demonstrations. By summer, thousands of public facilities nationwide were integrated, and companies began to hire blacks. The resulting political climate pushed passage of civil rights legislation. On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination.

March on Washington

Then came the March on Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. Nearly 250,000 Americans listened to speeches by civil rights activists, but most had come for King. The Kennedy Administration, fearing violence, edited a speech by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and invited white organizations to participate, causing some blacks to denigrate the event. Malcolm X labeled it the “farce in Washington."

Crowds far exceeded expectations. Speaker after speaker addressed them. The heat grew oppressive, but then King stood up. His speech started slowly, but King stopped reading from notes, either by inspiration or gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouting, “Tell 'em about the dream, Martin!”

He had had a dream, he declared, “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 the content of their character.” It was the greatest speech of his life.

Nobel Prize

King, now known worldwide, was designated Time magazine's 1963 “Man of the Year.” In 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, donating its $54,123 proceeds to advancing civil rights.

Not everyone was thrilled by King's success. Since the bus boycott, King had been under scrutiny by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoping to prove King was under communistic influence, Hoover filed a request with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to put him under surveillance, including break-ins to homes and offices and wiretaps.

Poverty

In the summer of 1964 King's nonviolent concept was challenged by deadly riots in the North. King believed their origins were segregation and poverty and shifted his focus to poverty, but he couldn't garner support. He organized a campaign against poverty in 1966 and moved his family into Chicago's black ghetto, but he found that strategies successful in the South didn't work in Chicago. Blacks turned from King's peaceful course to the radical concepts of Malcolm X.

King refused to yield, addressing what he considered the harmful philosophy of Black Power in his last book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" King sought to clarify the link between poverty and discrimination and to address America's increased involvement in Vietnam, which he considered unjustifiable and discriminatory toward the poor.

King's last major effort, the Poor People's Campaign, was organized with other civil rights groups to bring impoverished people to live in tent camps on the National Mall starting April 29, 1968.

Last Days

Earlier that spring, King had gone to Memphis, Tennessee, to join a march supporting a strike by black sanitation workers. After the march began, riots broke out; 60 people were injured and one killed, ending the march.

On April 3, King gave what became his last speech. He wanted a long life, he said, and had been warned of danger in Memphis but said death didn't matter because he'd "been to the mountaintop" and seen "the promised land."

On April 4, 1968, King stepped onto the balcony of Memphis' Lorraine Motel. A rifle bullet tore into his face. He died at St. Joseph's Hospital less than an hour later. King's death brought widespread grief to a violence-weary nation. Riots exploded across the country.

Legacy

King's body was brought home to Atlanta to lie at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he had co-pastored with his father for many years. At King's April 9, 1968, funeral, great words honored the slain leader, but the most apropos eulogy was delivered by King himself, via a lerecording of his last sermon at Ebenezer:

"If any of you are around when I meet my day, I don't want a long funeral... I'd like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others... And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."

King had achieved much in the short span of 11 years. With accumulated travel topping 6 million miles, King could have gone to the moon and back 13 times. Instead, he traveled the world, making over 2,500 speeches, writing five books, leading eight major nonviolent efforts for social change, and being arrested over 20 times.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created a national holiday to celebrate the man who did so much for the United States.

Sources