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Martin Luther King Jr.

By Jessica McElrath,

Martin Luther King delivering a speech at Girard College in Philadelphia, 1965.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

Dates: January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968

Occupation: civil rights leader, reverend

Intelligent, dedicated, charismatic, and religious, Martin Luther King Jr. had what it took to inspire the conscience of the American public. He appealed to the moral sense of Americans, and after years of leading civil rights activists in nonviolent protest and direct action, his leadership helped to desegregate the South.

King's Education

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia to Alberta Williams King and to Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. At a young age, King excelled in school. He easily skipped ninth and twelfth grade. When he was fifteen, he received a unique opportunity; under a special program created for high school students, King was admitted to Morehouse College. He began college during the fall of 1944.

While he had excelled in high school, King found that college was more challenging. He was only able to read at an eight grade level. Despite this hindrance, King still managed to finish college in 1948 with a bachelor degree in sociology. King decided that as opposed to his previous interest in pursuing the law or medicine, he would pursue a career in the ministry.

In the fall of 1948, he began attending Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. It was at Crozer that he became serious about his studies. He studied the works of theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr. Among his studies, he also took a particular interest in Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy. However, King was heavily influenced by Niebuhr’s idea of man’s sinfulness. He believed that this sinfulness prevented nonviolent resistance from being effective. King, therefore, would never come to accept nonviolent resistance until it was put into action years later during the Montgomery bus boycott.

As opposed to King’s mediocre work at Morehouse, at Crozer his professors were impressed with his intellectual ability. Upon the suggestion of a professor, King decided to pursue a doctorate degree. He received his bachelor degree in Divinity in 1951 and enrolled at Boston University to study Systematic Theology that fall. While in Boston, he met Coretta Scott. They married in 1953 and had four children together. King received his Ph.D. in 1955.

King's Civil Rights Leadership

In 1954, King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly thereafter, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery city bus. Based on Parks decision to contest the arrest, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded in order organize the boycott of city buses. The members of the association elected King as president.

Nonviolent resistance slowly began to emerge as the defining force in the protest. During the boycott, King received numerous threats and his home was bombed. King and his family were not harmed, but this led to his concrete belief in the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. After more than a year, the boycott ended when the United States Supreme Court affirmed the District Court order to desegregate the city buses.

After successfully navigating the bus boycott, King had emerged as a national figure. King and other ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which served to organize civil rights protest movements throughout the South.

In 1959, King furthered his knowledge of Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy when he visited India. Upon his return, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia to co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church. While a co-pastor, King also stayed involved with the SCLC.

In October 1960, King participated in the student sit-in movement. He was arrested and sentenced to serve time in prison. His sentence received nationwide media attention. After President Dwight Eisenhower decided not to intervene, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy got involved and King was released.

King continued to participate in nonviolent protest. By 1963, however, King felt that civil rights progress was stagnant. King, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and several other civil rights leaders organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At the march on August 28, 1963, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. More than 250,000 blacks and whites who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial witnessed this memorable speech.

In 1963, King became Time magazine’s "Man of the Year." One year later, he received the Noble Peace Prize. This was also an important year for the civil rights movement. As the movement had garnered widespread support, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

King's Leadership is Challenged

After 1965, disenfranchisement with King surfaced among African Americans who became impatient with his method of nonviolent resistance. During the 1965 Selma, Alabama march for voting rights, opposition became more prevalent when the marchers, who were led by King, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge but stopped when confronted by a barricade of state troopers. King and the marchers kneeled, prayed, and then turned around.

Radical African Americans believed that King should have handled the situation differently. Furthermore, as the black power movement became stronger and as Malcolm X’s message of Black Nationalism became more accepted by Northern urban blacks, King increasingly became a controversial figure.

King's New Agenda

Despite the growing dissatisfaction with King’s tactics, he expanded his focus to include opposition to the Vietnam War. However, King’s disagreement with the war led to strained relations with the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.

King also began focusing on the poor of all races. In the spring of 1968, in the midst of planning the Poor People’s March on Washington, King left for Memphis, Tennessee to lead a strike of city sanitation workers. It was there that he delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The next day, on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel, he was shot. He was 39 years old. A few months later, on June 8, 1968, James Earl Ray was arrested in London, England. Ray pled guilty and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison.


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