Overview

Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his death in 1968. King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, tactics his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire.

King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and in 1957 became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

On October 14, 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. In 1965, he helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. The following year, he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In his final years, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War. He alienated many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam“. J. Edgar Hoover considered him a radical and made him an object of the FBI’s COINTELPRO from 1963 on. FBI agents investigated him for possible communist ties, recorded his extramarital liaisons and reported on them to government officials, and on one occasion mailed King a threatening anonymous letter, which he interpreted as an attempt to make him commit suicide.

In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Allegations that James Earl Ray, the man convicted of killing King, had been framed or acted in concert with government agents persisted for decades after the shooting. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.

Early life and education

King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams King. King’s legal name at birth was Michael King, and his father was also born Michael King, but the elder King changed both his and his son’s names around 1934. The elder King would later state that “Michael” was a mistake by the attending physician to his son’s birth, and the younger King’s birth certificate was altered to read “Martin Luther King Jr.” in 1957. King’s parents were both African-American, and he also had Irish ancestry through his paternal great-grandfather.

King was a middle child, between older sister Christine King Farris and younger brother A.D. King. King sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of the movie Gone with the Wind, and he enjoyed singing and music. His mother was an accomplished organist and choir leader who took him to various churches to sing, and he received attention for singing “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus”. King later became a member of the junior choir in his church.

King said that his father regularly whipped him until he was fifteen; a neighbor reported hearing the elder King telling his son “he would make something of him even if he had to beat him to death.” King saw his father’s proud and fearless protests against segregation, such as King Sr. refusing to listen to a traffic policeman after being referred to as “boy,” or stalking out of a store with his son when being told by a shoe clerk that they would have to “move to the rear” of the store to be served.

When King was a child, he befriended a white boy whose father owned a business near his family’s home. When the boys were six, they started school: King had to attend a school for African Americans and the other boy went to one for whites (public schools were among the facilities segregated by state law). King lost his friend because the child’s father no longer wanted the boys to play together.

King suffered from depression throughout much of his life. In his adolescent years, he initially felt resentment against whites due to the “racial humiliation” that he, his family, and his neighbors often had to endure in the segregated South. At the age of 12, shortly after his maternal grandmother died, King blamed himself and jumped out of a second-story window, but survived.

King was initially skeptical of many of Christianity’s claims. At the age of 13, he denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school. From this point, he stated, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.” However, he later concluded that the Bible has “many profound truths which one cannot escape” and decided to enter the seminary.

Growing up in Atlanta, King attended Booker T. Washington High School. He became known for his public speaking ability and was part of the school’s debate team. When King was thirteen in 1942, he became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal. During his junior year, he won first prize in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks Club in Dublin, Georgia. On the ride home to Atlanta by bus, he and his teacher were ordered by the driver to stand so that white passengers could sit down. King initially refused but complied after his teacher told him that he would be breaking the law if he did not submit. During this incident, King said that he was “the angriest I have ever been in my life.” An outstanding student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades of high school.

During King’s junior year in high school, Morehouse Collegea respected historically black collegeannounced that it would accept any high school juniors who could pass its entrance exam. At that time, many students had abandoned further studies to enlist in World War II. Due to this, Morehouse was eager to fill its classrooms. At the age of 15, King passed the exam and entered Morehouse. The summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, the 18-year-old King chose to enter the ministry. He had concluded that the church offered the most assuring way to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity.” King’s “inner urge” had begun developing, and he made peace with the Baptist Church, as he believed he would be a “rational” minister with sermons that were “a respectful force for ideas, even social protest.”

In 1948, King graduated at age 19 from Morehouse with a B.A. in sociology. He then enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951. King’s father fully supported his decision to continue his education.

While attending Crozer, King was joined by Walter McCall, a former classmate at Morehouse. At Crozer, King was elected president of the student body. The African-American students of Crozer for the most part conducted their social activity on Edwards Street. King became fond of the street because a classmate had an aunt who prepared collard greens for them, which they both relished.

King once reproved another student for keeping beer in his room, saying they had shared responsibility as African Americans to bear “the burdens of the Negro race.” For a time, he was interested in Walter Rauschenbusch‘s “social gospel.” In his third year at Morehouse, King became romantically involved with the white daughter of an immigrant German woman who worked as a cook in the cafeteria. The daughter had been involved with a professor prior to her relationship with King. King planned to marry her, but friends advised against it, saying that an interracial marriage would provoke animosity from both blacks and whites, potentially damaging his chances of ever pastoring a church in the South. King tearfully told a friend that he could not endure his mother’s pain over the marriage and broke the relationship off six months later. He continued to have lingering feelings toward the women he left; one friend was quoted as saying, “He never recovered.”

King married Coretta Scott on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her parents’ house in her hometown of Heiberger, Alabama. They became the parents of four children: Yolanda King (1955-2007), Martin Luther King III (b. 1957), Dexter Scott King (b. 1961), and Bernice King (b. 1963). During their marriage, King limited Coretta’s role in the civil rights movement, expecting her to be a housewife and mother.

At age 25 in 1954, King was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Doctoral studies

King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Ph.D. degree on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation (initially supervised by Edgar S. Brightman and, upon the latter’s death, by Lotan Harold DeWolf) titled A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. While pursuing doctoral studies, King worked as an assistant minister at Boston’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church with Rev. William Hunter Hester. Hester was an old friend of King’s father, and was an important influence on King.

Decades later, an academic inquiry in October 1991 concluded that portions of his dissertation had been plagiarized and he had acted improperly. However, ;Public arena

Rosa Parks with King, 1955

In March 1955, Claudette Colvina fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomeryrefused to give up her bus seat to a white man in violation of Jim Crow laws, local laws in the Southern United States that enforced racial segregation. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case; E. D. Nixon and Clifford Durr decided to wait for a better case to pursue because the incident involved a minor.

Nine months later on December 1, 1955, a similar incident occurred when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. The two incidents led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which was urged and planned by Nixon and led by King. The boycott lasted for 385 days, and the situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. King was arrested during this campaign, which concluded with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. King’s role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1957, King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The group was created to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform. The group was inspired by the crusades of evangelist Billy Graham, who befriended King after he attended a 1957 Graham crusade in New York City. King led the SCLC until his death. The SCLC’s 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom was the first time King addressed a national audience. Other civil rights leaders involved in the SCLC with King included: James Bevel, Allen Johnson, Curtis W. Harris, Walter E. Fauntroy, C. T. Vivian, Andrew Young, The Freedom Singers, Charles Evers, Cleveland Robinson, Randolph Blackwell, Annie Bell Robinson Devine, Charles Kenzie Steele, Alfred Daniel Williams King, Benjamin Hooks, Aaron Henry and Bayard Rustin.

On September 20, 1958, King was signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Blumstein’s department store in Harlem when he narrowly escaped death. Izola Currya mentally ill black woman who thought that King was conspiring against her with communistsstabbed him in the chest with a letter opener. King underwent emergency surgery with three doctors: Aubre de Lambert Maynard, Emil Naclerio and John W. V. Cordice; he remained hospitalized for several weeks. Curry was later found mentally incompetent to stand trial. In 1959, he published a short book called The Measure of A Man, which contained his sermons “What is Man?” and “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.” The sermons argued for man’s need for God’s love and criticized the racial injustices of Western civilization.

Harry Wachtel joined King’s legal advisor Clarence B. Jones in defending four ministers of the SCLC in the libel case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan; the case was litigated in reference to the newspaper advertisement “Heed Their Rising Voices“. Wachtel founded a tax-exempt fund to cover the expenses of the suit and to assist the nonviolent civil rights movement through a more effective means of fundraising. This organization was named the “Gandhi Society for Human Rights.” King served as honorary president for the group. He was displeased with the pace that President Kennedy was using to address the issue of segregation. In 1962, King and the Gandhi Society produced a document that called on the President to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and issue an executive order to deliver a blow for civil rights as a kind of Second Emancipation Proclamation. Kennedy did not execute the order.

Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy with civil rights leaders, June 22, 1963.

The FBI was under written directive from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy when it began tapping King’s telephone line in the fall of 1963. Kennedy was concerned that public allegations of communists in the SCLC would derail the administration’s civil rights initiatives. He warned King to discontinue these associations and later felt compelled to issue the written directive that authorized the FBI to wiretap King and other SCLC leaders. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared the civil rights movement and investigated the allegations of communist infiltration. When no evidence emerged to support this, the FBI used the incidental details caught on tape over the next five years in attempts to force King out of his leadership position, in the COINTELPRO program.

King believed that organized, nonviolent protest against the system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow laws would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality and voting rights. Journalistic accounts and televised footage of the daily deprivation and indignities suffered by Southern blacks, and of segregationist violence and harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, produced a wave of sympathetic public opinion that convinced the majority of Americans that the civil rights movement was the most important issue in American politics in the early 1960s.

King organized and led marches for blacks’ right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were successfully enacted into the law of the United States with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

King and the SCLC put into practice many of the principles of the Christian Left and applied the tactics of nonviolent protest with great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the places in which protests were carried out. There were often dramatic stand-offs with segregationist authorities, who sometimes turned violent.

King was criticized by many groups during the course of his participation in the civil rights movement. This included opposition by more militant blacks such as Nation of Islam member Malcolm X.Stokely Carmichael was a separatist and disagreed with King’s plea for racial integration because he considered it an insult to a uniquely African-American culture.Omali Yeshitela urged Africans to remember the history of violent European colonization and how power was not secured by Europeans through integration, but by violence and force.

Albany Movement, 1961