Say the name Martin Luther King, Jr., and many people can recite the most commonly known facts of the civil rights legend’s extraordinary life. Dr. King started his work as an activist in the mid-1950s. He delivered some of the most iconic speeches of the 20th century and their impact not only elevated his stature, they had a profound effect on the national consciousness.
Dr. King’s efforts to promote sustained, non-violent protest sparked America’s civil rights movement, which opened doors to education and employment that had long been closed to black America. His insistence on equal rights and justice for all Americans led to a national holiday named in his honor. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Dr. King. Observed for the first time on January 20, 1986, it’s called Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In January 2000, for the first time, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially observed in all 50 U.S. states.
Though Dr. King's name is known worldwide, many may not realize that he was born Michael King, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929. His father, Michael King, was a pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. During a trip to Germany, King, Sr. was so impressed by the history of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther that he changed not only his own name, but also 5-year-old Michael’s.
His brilliance was noted early, as he was accepted into Morehouse College, a historically black school in Atlanta, at age 15. By the summer before his last year of college, Dr. King knew he was destined to continue the family profession of pastoral work and decided to enter the ministry. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Morehouse at age 19, and then enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. He earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955.
Dr. 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).
In 1954, when he was 25 years old, Dr. King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In March 1955 Claudette Colvin—a 15-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery—refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, which was a violation of Jim Crow laws, local laws in the Southern United States that enforced racial segregation. Dr. King was on the committee from the Birmingham African-American community that looked into the case. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) briefly considered using Colvin's case to challenge the segregation laws, but decided that because she was so young—and had become pregnant—her case would attract too much negative attention.
Nine months later on December 1, 1955, a similar incident occurred when a seamstress named 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 the President of the Alabama Chapter of the NAACP, E.D. Nixon, and led by Dr. King. The boycott lasted for 385 days.
Dr. King’s prominent and outspoken role in the boycott led to numerous threats against his life, and his house was firebombed. He was arrested during the campaign, which concluded with a United States District Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle (in which Colvin was a plaintiff) that ended racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses. Dr. King's role in the bus boycott transformed him into a national figure and the best-known spokesman of the civil rights movement.
In 1957 Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, and other civil rights activists founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to harness the organizing power of black churches to conduct nonviolent protests to ultimately achieve civil rights reform. The group was part of what was called “The Big Five” of Civil Rights organizations, and included the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress on Racial Equality.
Fighting for change, nonviolently
Dr. King narrowly escaped an early assassination attempt on September 20, 1958, when he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener in a Harlem bookstore. He survived but was hospitalized for several weeks after emergency surgery. Izola Curry—a mentally ill black woman who thought that Dr. King was conspiring against her with communists—was found incompetent to stand trial.
From the early days of the Montgomery boycott, Dr. King had often referred to India’s Mahatma Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” In February 1959, he traveled to India to study more about the use of non-violent protest to create social change.
Through his connections with the Big Five civil rights groups, overwhelming support from black America and with the support of prominent individual well-wishers, Dr. King’s skill and effectiveness grew exponentially. He organized and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation, labor rights, and other basic civil rights.
On August 28, 1963, The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom became the pinnacle of Dr. King’s national and international influence. Before a crowd of 250,000 people, he delivered the legendary “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That speech, along with Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” are among the best-known writings in the English language. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights and social justice activism.
Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War became a prominent part of his public persona. On April 4, 1967—exactly one year before his death—he gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam” in New York City, in which he proposed a stop to the bombing of Vietnam. Dr. King also suggested that the United States declare a truce with the aim of achieving peace talks, and that the U.S. set a date for withdrawal.
Ultimately, Dr. King was driven to focus on social and economic justice in the United States. He had traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in early April 1968 to help organize a sanitation workers’ strike, and on the night of April 3, he delivered the legendary “Mountaintop Speech,” in which he compared the strike to the long struggle for human freedom and the battle for economic justice, using the New Testament's Parable of the Good Samaritan to stress the need for people to get involved.
The next day, April 4, Dr. King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray, a small-time criminal who had escaped the year before from a maximum-security prison. Ray was charged and convicted of the murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison on March 10, 1969. But Ray changed his mind after three days in jail, claiming he was not guilty and had been framed. He spent the rest of his life fighting unsuccessfully for a trial, despite the ultimate support of some members of the King family and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
The turmoil that flowed from Dr. King’s assassination led many black Americans to wonder if that dream he had spoken of so eloquently had died with him. But many have noted the election of African-American politician Barack H. Obama as 44th President of the United States as proof that Dr. King’s vision of racial equality and equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, creed or color, is attainable.