The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Ph.D., (January 15, 1929 - April 4,
1968) was a Nobel Laureate, Baptist minister, and African American civil rights
activist. He is one of the most significant leaders in U.S. history and in the
modern history of non-violence, and is considered a hero, peacemaker and martyr
by many people around the world.
King was born in Atlanta, Georgia to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.
and Alberta Williams King. (Birth records list King's first name
as Michael, apparently due to some confusion on the part of the family
doctor regarding the true name of his father, who was known as Mike
throughout his childhood). He graduated from Morehouse College with
a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology in 1948. His application to
Yale Divinity School was rejected, and he graduated from Crozer Theological
Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Divinity
in 1951. He received his Ph.D. in Systematic theology from Boston
University in 1955. Later, however, scholars at the King Papers project
found that King plagiarized portions of his doctoral dissertation
and academic papers, although Boston University did not revoke King's
Civil rights activism.
In 1954, King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus
boycott which began when Rosa Parks refused to comply with Jim Crow
law and surrender her seat to a white man. The boycott lasted for 381
days. The situation became so tense that King's house was bombed. King
was arrested during this campaign, which ended with a United States
Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation on intrastate buses.
Following the campaign, King was instrumental in the founding of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, a group created
to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches
to conduct nonviolent protests in the service of civil rights reform.
King continued to dominate the organization until his death. The organization's
nonviolent principles were criticized by the younger, more radical
blacks and challenged by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) then headed by James Foreman.
The SCLC derived its membership principally from black communities
associated with Baptist churches. King was an adherent of the philosophies
of nonviolent civil disobedience used successfully in India by Mahatma
Gandhi, and he applied this philosophy to the protests organized by
the SCLC. King correctly identified that organized, nonviolent protest
against the racist system of southern segregation known as Jim Crow
would lead to extensive media coverage of the struggle for black equality
and voting rights. Indeed, 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 made
the Civil Rights Movement the single most important issue in American
politics in the early 1960s.
King organized and led marches for blacks' right to vote, desegregation,
fair hiring, and other basic civil rights. Most of these rights were
successfully enacted into United States law with the passage of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King and the SCLC applied the principles of nonviolent protest with
great success by strategically choosing the method of protest and the
places in which protests were carried out in often dramatic stand-offs
with segregationist authorities. Sometimes these confrontations turned
violent. King and the SCLC were instrumental in the unsuccessful protest
movement in Albany, in 1961 - 1962, where divisions within the
black community and the canny, low-key response by local government
defeated efforts; in the Birmingham protests in the summer of 1963;
and in the protest in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964. King and the
SCLC joined forces with SNCC in Selma, Alabama, in December 1964, where
SNCC had been working on voter registration for a number of months.
The March on Washington.
King and SCLC, in partial collaboration with SNCC, then attempted to
organise a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, for
March 25, 1965. The first attempt to march on March 7, was aborted
due to mob and police violence against the demonstrators. This day
since has become known as Bloody Sunday. Bloody Sunday was a major
turning point in the effort to gain public support for the Civil Rights
Movement, the clearest demonstration up to that time of the dramatic
potential of King's nonviolence strategy. King, however, was not present.
After meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, he had attempted to
delay the march until March 8, but the march was carried out against
his wishes and without his presence by local civil rights workers.
The footage of the police brutality against the protestors was broadcast
extensively across the nation and aroused a national sense of public
The second attempt at the march on March 9 was ended when King stopped
the procession at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma,
an action which he seemed to have negotiated with city leaders beforehand.
This unexpected action aroused the surprise and anger of many within
the local movement. The march finally went ahead fully on March 25,
with the agreement and support of President Johnson, and it was during
this march that Willie Ricks coined the phrase "Black Power" (widely
credited to Stokely Carmichael).
King, representing SCLC, was among the leaders of the so-called "Big
Six" civil rights organizations who were instrumental in the organization
of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The other
leaders and organizations comprising the Big Six were: Roy Wilkins,
NAACP; Whitney Young, Jr., Urban League; A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters; John Lewis, SNCC; and James Farmer of the
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). For King, this role was another
which courted controversy, as he was one of the key figures who acceded
to the wishes of President John F. Kennedy in changing the focus of
the march. Kennedy initially opposed the march outright, because he
was concerned it would negatively impact the drive for passage of civil
rights legislation, but the organizers were firm that the march would
The march originally was conceived as an event to dramatize the desperate
condition of blacks in the South and a very public opportunity to place
organizers' concerns and grievances squarely before the seat of power
in the nation's capital. Organizers intended to excoriate and then
challenge the federal government for its failure to safeguard the civil
rights and physical safety of civil rights workers and blacks, generally,
in the South. However, the group acquiesced to presidential pressure
and influence, and the event ultimately took on a far less strident
As a result, some civil rights activists who felt it presented an
inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it
the "Farce on Washington" and members of the Nation of Islam
who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.
The march did, however, make specific demands: an end to racial segregation
in public school; meaningful civil rights legislation, including a
law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of
civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all
workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed
by congressional committee.
Despite tensions, the march was a resounding success. More than a
quarter of a million people of diverse ethnicities attended the event,
sprawling from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial onto the National
Mall and around the reflecting pool. At the time, it was the largest
gathering of protestors in Washington's history. King's I Have a Dream
speech electrified the crowd. It is regarded, along with President
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as one of the finest speeches in the
history of American oratory.
Throughout his career of service, King wrote and spoke frequently,
drawing on his long experience as a preacher. His "Letter from
Birmingham Jail", written in 1963, is a passionate statement of
his crusade for justice. On October 14, 1964, King became the youngest
recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for leading
non-violent resistance to end racial prejudice in the United States.
Starting in 1965, King began to express doubts about the United States'
role in the Vietnam War. On April 4, 1967 - exactly one year before
his death - King spoke out strongly against the US's role in the
war, insisting that the US was in Vietnam "to occupy it as an
American colony" and calling the US government "the greatest
purveyor of violence in the world today". But he also argued that
the country needed larger and broader moral changes:
"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring
contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will
look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing
huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take
the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries,
and say: "This is not just".
King was long hated by many white southern segregationists, but this
speech turned the more mainstream media against him. TIME called the
speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio
Hanoi (a propaganda radio station run by the North Vietnamese Army
during the Vietnam War)", and the Washington Post declared that
King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country,
The speech was a reflection of King's evolving political advocacy
in his later years. He began to speak of the need for fundamental changes
in the political and economic life of the nation. Toward the end of
his life, King more frequently expressed his opposition to the war
and his desire to see a redistribution of resources to correct racial
and economic injustice. Though his public language was guarded, so
as to avoid being linked to communism by his political enemies, in
private he sometimes spoke of his support for democratic socialism):
"You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without
talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the
slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're
really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing
with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this
means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means
that we are saying that something is wrong. with capitalism. There
must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move
toward a democratic socialism".
In 1968, King and the SCLC organized the "Poor People's Campaign" to
address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march
on Washington, D.C. demanding economic aid to the poorest communities
of the United States.
On April 3, 1968, King prophetically told a euphoric crowd:
"It really doesn't matter what happens now. some began to. talk
about the threats that were out - what would happen to me from some
of our sick white brothers. Like anybody, I would like to live a
long life. Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that
now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to
the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that
we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight.
I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes
have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord".
King was assassinated the next evening, April 4, 1968, at 6:01pm, on
the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, while preparing
to lead a local march in support of the heavily black Memphis sanitation
workers' union which was on strike at the time. Friends inside the
motel room heard the shot fired and ran to the balcony to find King
shot in the jaw. He was pronounced dead several hours later. The assassination
led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 60 cities. Four days
later, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national day of mourning
for the lost civil rights leader. A crowd of 300,000 attended his funeral
that same day.