Martin Luther King Jr. led the African American struggle to achieve full rights of U.S. citizenship and showed how mass peaceful action could solve intractable social and political problems. He eloquently voiced the hopes and grievances of African Americans, persuading the majority of them to take him as their leader.
King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of an assistant pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the grandson of a reverend. Martin's parents, the Reverend King Sr. and Alberta Williams, had an older child, Christine, and a younger, Alfred Daniel ("A. D."), who also became a minister. When Reverend Williams died in 1931, the Reverend King Sr. succeeded him and was pastor for more than 50 years, until his death in 1984.
The young King went to segregated public schools and then to Booker T. Washington High School, which he left after two years when he qualified to enter Morehouse College, now part of Atlanta University. As he pursued a major in sociology, his concern with social betterment was aroused. King received his degree in 1948, but the year before, he had been ordained a Baptist minister and had become assistant pastor to his father.
In 1948, King went north to Chester, Pennsylvania, where he entered Crozer Theological Seminary as one of six African-American students among some 90 whites. At Crozer, he first became acquainted with the Social Gospel movement of Walter Rauschenbusch and the works of Mohandas Gandhi, who had been assassinated in early 1948. He graduated with a bachelor in divinity degree in 1951, having been president of the senior class, the top student, and winner of a graduate fellowship.
The Crozer fellowship enabled King to enter Boston University, which he had chosen over an offer from Yale University because of his desire to study with its philosophy department. By 1953, he had completed the course requirements for the Ph.D., and he had met Coretta Scott, who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory. They married that summer and returned to Boston, Coretta to finish her work at the conservatory, her husband to write his Ph.D. dissertation on the concept of God in the thought of Paul Tillich and H. N. Wieman, while taking courses at Harvard University in Plato and existential philosophy and preaching in local churches. In 1955, Boston University awarded him the Ph.D.
The previous year, however, King had been called to his first ministry at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a strictly segregated city like any other in the South. King was beginning to be known for his preaching when, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress, was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her action, coming after the Supreme Court declared the segregation of schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), indicated the electrifying effects that decision had on African Americans, who henceforth would not tolerate situations they had long endured. The consequence was the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), formed by the ministers of the African-American churches, chose King as its president to lead the protest. As the nonviolent boycott and the violence of the white community went on during 1956, national and international attention focused on Montgomery, and King became prominent for his eloquence and his personal courage in the face of attacks on his home and himself. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama's laws segregating buses unconstitutional.
Some 60 Southern African-American leaders met in January 1957 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to form a larger organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to lead the struggle against segregation. King, elected its president, emphasized Gandhi's teaching of nonviolence and made the winning of African-American voting rights the first goal. His career was transformed as his fame and dedication grew. In March, he was invited to attend the ceremonies for the independence of Ghana, in West Africa. In May, he led a prayer pilgrimage of 25,000 people in Washington, D.C., demanding federal action on civil rights. In June 1958, he met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower to urge stronger federal protection of civil rights, and in September, his book Stride Toward Freedom was published, giving his account of the Montgomery protest. In February 1959, he and his wife went to India at the invitation of the Gandhian National Memorial Fund. In January 1960, he left his Montgomery pastorate for Atlanta, where the SCLC headquarters had been established, and he became cominister of his father's church.
The Gandhian techniques of civil disobedience that King and the SCLC supported included not only the boycott but the sit-in, the protest march, and the Freedom Rides. The action of the Freedom Riders, traveling across state lines, was an effort to force the federal government to protect the rights of Southern citizens. In that and other aspects of his work, King gradually gained the support of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general.
The struggle to integrate Birmingham, Alabama during the spring of 1963 involved King's most strenuous and courageous action. The city's police, under Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, used brutal means—dogs, cattle prods, fire hoses—against the demonstrators. The American public witnessed horrifying scenes on television and in newspapers, bringing home the reality of the violence. King was arrested and thrown into a solitary cell, where he wrote a stirring "Letter from Birmingham Jail," defending nonviolent protest in answer to a statement by a group of local clergymen objecting to his tactics. Though sporadic violence continued, the Birmingham campaign was finally successful, and black and white leaders agreed on a gradual procedure of desegregation. King gave his account of the Birmingham struggle in Why We Can't Wait (1964).
The March on Washington in August 1963, organized by King and the SCLC, was attended by a quarter of a million people, at least a fourth of whom were white. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King gave his most famous speech, with its repeated words "I Have a Dream." In the fall of 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in his laureate address in Oslo, Norway, he saw the award as an affirmation of nonviolent protest. "The Movement," he declared, "seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people." His movement's efforts compelled Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964), which committed the federal government to eliminating racial discrimination from American life.
In the spring of 1965, King organized two marches of many thousands from Selma to Birmingham to emphasize the need for a federal voting rights law. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6 in King's presence. His support of Johnson began to waver, however, and in 1967, he declared his opposition to the Vietnam War and became cochairman of an organization concerned about the war. He further broadened his concerns from racism to include unemployment and poverty. An attempt to improve slum conditions in Chicago was a failure. Some of his younger, more radical followers fell away as they found King unacceptably moderate. Riots in the ghettos of Newark, Harlem, Detroit, and Los Angeles challenged his nonviolent teaching.
To highlight the problems of the poor, both black and white, King planned a Poor People's Campaign in the form of a march and campground in Washington during April 1968. In March, he led protesters in Memphis in support of a strike of sanitation workers. "I've been to the mountaintop . . . and I've seen the Promised Land," he told his followers shortly before, on April 4, he was shot by a sniper, James Earl Ray, as he stood on the balcony of his motel room talking with Jesse Jackson and other followers. In 1999, his death was declared the work of a conspiracy rather than that of a lone gunman.
King's work is carried on at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. In 1986, his birthday, January 15, became a national holiday.
"Martin Luther King Jr." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.
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