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

MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. Stephen F. Somerstein / Getty Images

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 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 resulting Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation brought him fame. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate nonviolent protests and delivered over 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 January 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, going to school, 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 of confronting institutionalized evil.

College

Graves Hall, Morehouse College
Graves Hall, Morehouse College.

Wikimedia Commons

King entered Morehouse College at 15. King's wavering attitude toward his future career in the clergy led him to engage in activities typically not condoned by the church. He played pool, drank beer, and received his lowest academic marks in 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 as a minister in February 1948, the year he graduated with a sociology degree at age 19.

Seminary

In September 1948, King entered the 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 nonviolent 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 of that year, 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. While King knew early on that she had all the qualities he desired in a wife, initially, Coretta was hesitant about dating a minister. The couple married on 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 became the pastor in April 1954. Coretta, meanwhile, 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. Explaining her feelings on the issue, Coretta told Jeanne Theoharis in a 2018 article in The Guardian, a British newspaper:

“I once told Martin that although I loved being his wife and a mother, if that was all I did I would have gone crazy. I felt a calling on my life from an early age. I knew I had something to contribute to the world.”

And to a degree, King seemed to agree with his wife, saying he fully considered her a partner in the struggle for civil rights as well as on all other issues with which he was involved. Indeed, in his autobiography, he stated:

"I didn't want a wife I couldn't communicate with. I had to have a wife who would be as dedicated as I was. I wish I could say that I led her down this path, but I must say we went down it together because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now."

Yet, Coretta felt strongly that her role, and the role of women in general in the civil rights movement, had long been "marginalized" and overlooked, according to The Guardian. As early as 1966, Corretta wrote in an article published in the British women's magazine New Lady:

“Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle….Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.…Women have been the ones who have made it possible for the movement to be a mass movement.”

Historians and observers have noted that King did not support gender equality in the civil rights movement. In an article in The Chicago Reporter, a monthly publication that covers race and poverty issues, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein wrote that women "played a limited role in the SCLC." Lowenstein further explained:

"Here the experience of legendary organizer Ella Baker is instructive. Baker struggled to have her voice heard...by leaders of the male-dominated organization. This disagreement prompted Baker, who played a key role in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to counsel young members like John Lewis to retain their independence from the older group. Historian Barbara Ransby wrote in her 2003 biography of Baker that the SCLC ministers were 'not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing' because to do so 'would be too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church.'"

Montgomery Bus Boycott

1953MLK.jpg
MLK at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. New York Times / Getty Images

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' December 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 Black person would ride the buses on December 5.

That day, nearly 20,000 Black citizens refused bus rides. Because Black people comprised 90% of the passengers, most buses were empty. When the boycott ended 381 days later, Montgomery's transit system was nearly bankrupt. Additionally, on November 23, in the case of Gayle v. Browder, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "Racially segregated transportation systems enforced by the government violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," according to Oyez, an online archive of U.S. Supreme Court cases operated by the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law. The court also cited the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, where it had ruled in 1954 that "segregation of public education based solely on race (violates) the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," according to Oyez. On December 20, 1956, the Montgomery Improvement Association voted to end the boycott.

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

Principles of Nonviolence

In early 1958, King's first book, "Stride Toward Freedom," which detailed the Montgomery bus boycott, was published. While signing books in Harlem, New York, King was stabbed by a Black woman with a mental health condition. As he recovered, he visited India's Gandhi Peace Foundation in February 1959 to refine his protest strategies. In the book, greatly influenced by Gandhi's movement and teachings, he laid six principles, explaining that nonviolence:

Is not a method for cowards; it does resist: King noted that "Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight." Nonviolence is the method of a strong person; it is not "stagnant passivity."

Does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding: Even in conducting a boycott, for example, the purpose is "to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent" and the goal is one of "redemption and reconciliation," King said.

Is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil: "It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil," King wrote. The fight is not one of Black people versus White people, but to achieve "but a victory for justice and the forces of light," King wrote.

Is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back: Again citing Gandhi, King wrote: "The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it 'as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber.'"

Avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit: Saying that you win through love not hate, King wrote: "The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him."

Is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice: The nonviolent person "can accept suffering without retaliation" because the resister knows that "love" and "justice" will win in the end.

Birmingham

Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Birmingham, Alabama

Buyenlarge / Contributor / Getty Images

In April 1963, King and the SCLC joined Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in a nonviolent campaign to end segregation and force Birmingham, Alabama, businesses to hire Black people. Fire hoses and vicious dogs were unleashed on the protesters by “Bull” Connor's police officers. King was thrown into jail. King spent eight days in the Birmingham jail as a result of this arrest but used the time to write "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," affirming his peaceful philosophy.

The brutal images galvanized the nation. Money poured in to support the protesters; White allies joined demonstrations. By summer, thousands of public facilities nationwide were integrated, and companies began to hire Black people. The resulting political climate pushed the passage of civil rights legislation. On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. The law prohibited racial discrimination in public, ensured the "constitutional right to vote," and outlawed discrimination in places of employment.

March on Washington

Dr. Martin Luther King addresses the crowd at the March on Washington, 1963
Dr. Martin Luther King addresses the crowd at the March on Washington, 1963.

CNP / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Then came the March on Washington, D.C., on August 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 and invited White organizations to participate, causing some Black people 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 most memorable speech of his life.

Nobel Prize

MLK and wife
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. AFP / Getty Images

King, now known worldwide, was designated Time magazine's “Man of the Year” in 1963. He won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year and donated the $54,123 in winnings 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 communist influence, Hoover filed a request with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to put him under surveillance, including break-ins at homes and offices and wiretaps. However, despite "various kinds of FBI surveillance," the FBI found "no evidence of Communist influence," according to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

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 one of Chicago's Black neighborhoods, but he found that strategies successful in the South didn't work in Chicago. His efforts were met with "institutional resistance, skepticism from other activists and open violence," according to Matt Pearce in an article in the Los Angeles Times, published in January 2016, the 50th anniversary of King's efforts in the city. Even as he arrived in Chicago, King was met by "a line of police and a mob of angry white people," according to Pearce's article. King even commented on the scene:

“I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago. Yes, it’s definitely a closed society. We’re going to make it an open society.”

Despite the resistance, King and the SCLC worked to fight "slumlords, realtors and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic machine," according to the Times. But it was an uphill effort. "The civil rights movement had started to splinter. There were more militant activists who disagreed with King’s nonviolent tactics, even booing King at one meeting," Pearce wrote. Black people in the North (and elsewhere) turned from King's peaceful course to the 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 those whose incomes were below the poverty level as well as Black people.

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

Lorraine Motel, Memphis
Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The motel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. Flickr

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 person was 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

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

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 recording 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, and leading eight major nonviolent efforts for social change. King was arrested and jailed 29 times during his civil rights work, mainly in cities throughout the South, according to the website Face2Face Africa.

King's legacy today lives through the Black Lives Matter movement, which is physically nonviolent but lacks Dr. King's principle on "the internal violence of the spirit" that says one should love, not hate, their oppressor. Dara T. Mathis wrote in an April 3, 2018, article in The Atlantic, that King's legacy of
"militant nonviolence lives on in the pockets of mass protests" of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country. But Mathis added:

"Conspicuously absent from the language modern activists use, however, is an appeal to America’s innate goodness, a call to fulfill the promise set forth by its Founding Fathers."

And Mathis further noted:

"Although Black Lives Matter practices nonviolence as a matter of strategy, love for the oppressor does not find its way into their ethos."

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created a national holiday to celebrate the man who did so much for the United States. Reagan summed up King's legacy with these words that he gave during a speech dedicating the holiday to the fallen civil rights leader:

"So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, 'All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning,...land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"

Coretta Scott King, who had fought hard to see the holiday established and was at the White House ceremony that day, perhaps summed up King's legacy most eloquently, sounding wistful and hopeful that her husband's legacy would continue to be embraced:

"He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.
"America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King, Jr., became her preeminent nonviolent commander."

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Michael Eli Dokos. “Ever Knew Martin Luther King Jr. Was Arrested 29 Times for His Civil Rights Work?” Face2Face Africa, 23 Feb. 2020.

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Mason, Deborah Latchison. "Biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Leader." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/martin-luther-king-jr-1779880. Mason, Deborah Latchison. (2021, September 9). Biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Leader. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/martin-luther-king-jr-1779880 Mason, Deborah Latchison. "Biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Leader." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/martin-luther-king-jr-1779880 (accessed September 28, 2021).

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