A Biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A review of the civil rights leader's childhood, education and activism

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wikimedia Commons/World Telegram & Sun/Dick DeMarsico

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Miami when he had a meeting with film producer Abby Mann, who was contemplating a movie biography about King. Mann asked the 37-year-old minister how the movie should end. King replied, "It ends with me getting killed."

Throughout his civil rights career, King was painfully aware that a number of white Americans wanted to see him destroyed or even dead, but he accepted the mantle of leadership anyway, assuming its heavy burden at the young age of 26.

The 12 years the activist spent fighting first for civil rights and later against poverty changed America in profound ways and turned King into "the moral leader of the nation," in A. Philip Randolph's words.

Martin Luther King's Childhood

King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, to an Atlanta pastor, Michael (Mike) King, and his wife, Alberta King. Mike King's son was named after him, but when little Mike was five, the elder King changed his name and his son's name to Martin Luther, suggesting that both had a destiny as great as the founder of the Protestant Reformation. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was a prominent pastor among African Americans in Atlanta, and his son grew up in a comfortable middle-class environment.

King Jr. was an intelligent boy who impressed his teachers with his efforts to expand his vocabulary and sharpen his speaking skills. He was a dutiful member of his father's church, but as he grew older, he did not show much interest in following in his father's footsteps.

On one occasion, he told a Sunday school teacher that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was ever resurrected.

King's experience in his youth with segregation was mixed. On the one hand, King Jr. witnessed his father stand up to white policemen who called him "boy" instead of "reverend." King Sr. was a strong man who demanded the respect he was due.

But, on the other hand, King himself had been subject to a racial epithet in a downtown Atlanta store.

When he was 16, King, accompanied by a teacher, went to a small town in southern Georgia for an oratorical contest; on the way home, the bus driver forced King and his teacher to give up their seats to white passengers. King and his teacher had to stand for the three hours it took to return to Atlanta. King later noted that he had never been angrier in his life.

Higher Education

King's intelligence and excellent schoolwork led him to skip two grades in high school, and in 1944, at the age of 15, King began his university studies at Morehouse College while living at home. His youth did not hold him back, however, and King joined the college social scene. Classmates remembered his stylish mode of dress--a "fancy sport coat and wide-brimmed hat."

King became more interested in the church as he grew older. At Morehouse, he took a Bible class that prompted his conclusion that whatever doubts he had about the Bible, it contained many truths about human existence. King majored in sociology, and by the end of his college career, he was contemplating either a career in law or in ministry.

At the start of his senior year, King settled on becoming a minister and started acting as assistant pastor to King Sr.

He applied and was accepted into Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He spent three years at Crozer where he excelled academically--more so than he had at Morehouse--and began to hone his preaching skills.

His professors thought he would do well in a doctoral program, and King decided to attend Boston University to pursue a doctorate in theology. In Boston, King met his future wife, Coretta Scott, and in 1953, they married. King told friends that he liked people too much to become an academic, and in 1954, King moved to Montgomery, Ala., to become pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That first year, he finished his dissertation while also building up his ministry. King earned his doctorate in June of 1955.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Shortly after King finished his dissertation on Dec.

1, 1955, Rosa Parks was on a Montgomery bus when told to give up her seat to a white passenger. She refused and was arrested. Her arrest marked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The evening of her arrest, King received a phone call from union leader and activist E.D. Nixon, who asked King to join the boycott and host the boycott meetings at his church. King hesitated, seeking the counsel of his friend Ralph Abernathy before agreeing. That agreement catapulted King into the leadership of the civil rights movement.

On Dec. 5, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization leading the boycott, elected King as its president. The meetings of Montgomery's African-American citizens saw the full realization of King's oratorical skills. The boycott lasted longer than any had predicted, as white Montgomery refused to negotiate. Montgomery's black community withstood the pressure admirably, organizing car pools and walking to work if necessary.

During the year of the boycott, King developed the ideas that formed the core of his non-violent philosophy, which was that the activists should, through quiet and passive resistance, reveal to the white community their own brutality and hatred. Though Mahatma Gandhi later became an influence, he initially developed his ideas out of Christianity. King explained that "[t]his business of passive resistance and nonviolence is the gospel of Jesus. I went to Gandhi through him."

World Traveler

The bus boycott was successful in integrating Montgomery's buses by December of 1956.

The year was a trying one for King; he was arrested and 12 sticks of dynamite with a burnt-out fuse were discovered on his front porch, but it also was the year that King accepted his role in the civil rights movement.

After the boycott in 1957, King helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became a key organization in the civil rights movement. King became a sought-out speaker across the South, and though he worried about people's overweening expectations, King began the travels that would take up the rest of his life.

In 1959, King traveled to India and met with Gandhi's former lieutenants. India had won its independence from Great Britain in 1947 due in large part to Gandhi's non-violent movement, which entailed peaceful civil resistance--that is resisting the unjust government but doing so without violence. King was impressed by the incredible success of the Indian independence movement through the employment of non-violence.

When he returned, King announced his resignation from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He felt it was unfair to his congregation to spend so much time on civil rights activism and so little time on ministry. The natural solution was to become co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Nonviolence Put to the Test

By the time King moved to Atlanta, the civil rights movement became full-fledged. College students in Greensboro, N.C., initiated the protests that formed this phase. On Feb. 1, 1960, four African-American college students, young men from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, went to a Woolworth's lunch counter that served whites only and asked to be served.

When denied service, they sat silently until the store closed. They returned for the rest of the week, kicking off a lunch-counter boycott that spread across the South.

In October, King joined students at a Rich's department store in downtown Atlanta. It became the occasion for another of King's arrests. But, this time, he was on probation for driving without a Georgia license (he had retained his Alabama license when he made his move to Atlanta). When he appeared before a Dekalb County judge on the charge of trespassing, the judge sentenced King to four months hard labor.

It was presidential election season, and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called Coretta Scott to offer his support while King was in jail. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy, though angry that the publicity of the phone call might alienate white Democrat voters from his brother, worked behind the scenes to procure King's early release. The result was that King Sr. announced his support for the Democratic candidate.

In 1961, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been formed in the wake of the Greensboro lunch-counter protests began a new initiative in Albany, Ga. Students and Albany residents began a series of demonstrations designed to integrate the city's services. Albany's police chief, Laurie Pritchett, employed a strategy of peaceful policing. He kept his police force tightly controlled, and the Albany protesters were having trouble making any headway. They called King.

King arrived in December and found his non-violent philosophy tested. Pritchett told the press that he had studied King's ideas and that non-violent protests would be countered by non-violent police work. What became apparent in Albany was the non-violent demonstrations were most effective when performed in an environment of overt hostility.

As Albany's police kept peacefully jailing protesters, the civil rights movement was being denied their most effective weapon in the new age of television images of peaceful protesters being brutally beaten. King left Albany in August 1962 as Albany's civil rights community decided to shift its efforts to voter registration.

Though Albany is generally considered a failure for King, it was merely road bump on the way to greater success for the non-violent civil rights movement.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail

In the spring of 1963, King and the SCLC took what they learned and applied it in Birmingham, Ala. The police chief there was Eugene "Bull" Connor, a violent reactionary lacking the political skills of Pritchett. When Birmingham's African-American community started mounting protests against segregation, Connor's police force responded by spraying the activists with high-pressure water hoses and unleashing police dogs.

It was during the Birmingham demonstrations that King was arrested for the 13th time since Montgomery. On April 12, King went to jail for demonstrating without a permit. While in jail, he read in the Birmingham News about an open letter from white clergy, urging civil rights protesters to stand down and be patient. King's response became known as "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," a powerful essay that defended the morality of civil rights activism.

King emerged from the Birmingham jail determined to win the fight there. SCLC and King made the difficult decision to allow high-school students to join the protests. Connor did not disappoint--the resulting images of peaceful youths being brutally put down shocked white America. King had won a decisive victory.

The March on Washington

On the heels of success in Birmingham came King's speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. The march was planned to urge support for a civil rights bill, though President Kennedy had his misgivings about the march. Kennedy delicately suggested that thousands of African Americans converging on DC might hurt the chances of a bill making it through Congress, but the civil rights movement remained dedicated to the march, although they agreed to avoid any rhetoric that could be interpreted as militant.

The highlight of the march was King's speech that used the famous refrain "I have a dream." King exhorted Americans, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children."

Civil Rights Laws

When Kennedy was assassinated, his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, used the moment to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, which outlawed segregation. At the end of 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his success in so prominently articulating and demanding human rights.

With that congressional victory in hand, King and the SCLC turned their attention next to the issue of voting rights. White Southerners since the end of Reconstruction had come up with various ways to deprive African Americans of suffrage, such as outright intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests.

In March of 1965, SNCC and SCLC tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., but were violently rebuffed by police. King joined them, leading a symbolic march that turned around before heading over the Pettus Bridge, the scene of the police brutality. Though King was criticized for that move, it presented a cooling-down period, and activists were able to complete the march to Montgomery on March 25.

In the midst of the troubles at Selma, President Johnson gave a speech urging support for his voting rights bill. He ended the speech by echoing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." The speech brought tears to King's eyes as he watched it on television--it was the first time his closest friends had seen him cry. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6.

King and Black Power

As the federal government endorsed the causes of the civil rights movement--integration and voting rights--King increasingly came face-to-face with the growing black power movement. Non-violence had been enormously effective in the South, which was segregated by law. In the North, however, African Americans faced de facto segregation, or segregation kept in place by custom, poverty due to years of discrimination, and housing patterns that were difficult to change overnight. So, despite the enormous changes coming to the South, African Americans in the North were frustrated by the slow pace of change.

The black power movement addressed these frustrations. Stokely Carmichael of SNCC articulated these frustrations during a 1966 speech, "Now we maintain that in the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a 'thalidomide drug of integration,' and that some negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people; and that that does not begin to solve the problem . . . that people ought to understand that; that we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy."

The black power movement dismayed King. As he began speaking out against the Vietnam War, he found himself having to address the issues raised by Carmichael and others, who were arguing that non-violence was not enough. He told one audience in Mississippi, "I'm sick and tired of violence. I'm tired of the war in Vietnam. I'm tired of war and conflict in the world. I'm tired of shooting. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of evil. I'm not going to use violence, no matter who says it."

The Poor People's Campaign

By 1967, in addition to becoming outspoken about the Vietnam War, King also began an anti-poverty campaign. He broadened his activism to include all poor Americans, seeing the achievement of economic justice as a way to overcome the sort of segregation that existed in cities like Chicago but also as a basic human right. It was the Poor People's Campaign, a movement to unite all impoverished Americans regardless of race or religion. King envisioned the movement as culminating in a march on Washington in the spring of 1968.

But events in Memphis interfered. In February of 1968, Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, protesting the mayor's refusal to recognize their union. An old friend, James Lawson, pastor of a Memphis church, called King and asked him to come. King could not refuse Lawson or their workers who needed his help and went to Memphis at the end of March, leading a demonstration that turned into a riot.

King returned to Memphis on April 3, determined to help the sanitation workers in spite of his dismay at the violence that had erupted. He spoke at a mass meeting that night, encouraging his listeners that "we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

He was staying at the Lorraine Motel, and on the afternoon of April 4, as King and other SCLC members were readying themselves for dinner, King stepped onto the balcony, waiting on Ralph Abernathy to put on some aftershave. As he stood waiting, King was shot. The hospital pronounced his death at 7:05 p.m.

Legacy

King was not perfect. He would have been the first to admit this. His wife, Coretta, desperately wanted to join the civil rights marches, but he insisted that she stay at home with their children, unable to break out of the rigid gender patterns of the era. He committed adultery, a fact that the FBI threatened to use against him and that King feared would make its way into the papers. But King was able to overcome his all-too-human weaknesses and lead African Americans, and all Americans, to a better future.

The civil rights movement never recovered from the blow of his death. Abernathy tried to continue the Poor People's Campaign without King, but he could not marshal the same support. King, however, has continued to inspire the world. By 1986, a federal holiday commemorating his birthday had been established. Schoolchildren study his "I Have a Dream" speech. No other American before or since has so clearly articulated and so determinedly fought for social justice.

Sources

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1964. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Kotz, Nick. Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.