BIOGRAPHY OF DR. KING
A national figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) rose to fame with his advocacy of nonviolence as a means to effect social change. From 1955 when he emerged as a leader during the Montgomery Bus Boycott until his assassination in 1968, he was both admired and reviled in his crusade to achieve racial equality. King also served as an eloquent and potent figure bridging societal divides, as evidenced by his access to the halls of power in both political (the White House) and religious (the Vatican) spheres. In 1964, at age 35, he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; he was also the twelfth American and third African-American to receive the honor.
Born Michael King on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, he was the second child and first son of Baptist minister Michael Luther King, Sr. and his wife, the former Alberta Williams, who herself was the daughter of the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. When King was two, his maternal grandfather died and his father became pastor. Four years after that — in 1935 — his father changed his name and his son’s name from Michael to Martin in honor of the sixteenth-century religious leader of the Protestant Reformation. Now known as Martin Luther King, Jr., he was enrolled at the all-black Young Street Grade School. Because of their position as church leaders, the King family did not feel the full extent of economic deprivation of the Great Depression. They did, however, feel the full brunt of racism and segregation which the elder King decried.
After completing his elementary education, King attended the Laboratory High School at the University of Atlanta until its closure in 1942. At that time, he transferred to Booker T. Washington High School, where he excelled academically. In 1944, King graduated from high school early and, after passing the entrance examinations, enrolled at Morehouse College at the age of 15. Initially, he had been resistant to pursuing a career in the ministry, mostly because he was embarrassed by the emotionality of the congregations of the black churches. While at Morehouse, though, he fell under the influence of the school’s president, Benjamin Mays, and his philosophy teacher, George D. Kelsey, both of whom were ordained ministers. While still an undergraduate in 1947, King became an ordained minister in his father’s church and preached his first sermon.
Graduating from Morehouse in 1948, King went on to study at the racially integrated Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. One of only six African-American students, he proved to be a superior student, even electing to take supplemental courses in philosophy at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. It was while studying at Crozer that King became an admirer of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and he adopted Gandhi’s stance that nonviolent resistance could be used to channel anger and frustration into a more positive force for societal change. Upon completion of his degree, King was awarded a fellowship for graduate studies, and he enrolled in the doctoral program at Boston University, supplementing his course work with philosophy classes at Harvard. He completed the academic requirements in 1953 and turned to completing his doctoral dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” In June 1955, he earned his PhD. During the summer breaks while in graduate school, King returned to Atlanta where he would preach sermons at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. While still working on his dissertation, he accepted a post at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in the fall of 1954. He appealed to his congregation to become more involved in community and social affairs, stressing the importance of registering to vote and pressing them to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on whose executive committee he served.
Within months of receiving his doctorate, King was able to put his ideals to the test. On December 1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a Caucasian. Her subsequent arrest sparked a boycott of the public transportation system by the city’s African-American population. Although the boycott was already in place, King assumed a leadership position-putting into practice the teachings of civil disobedience he embraced and thrusting him into national prominence, especially after he was arrested. The boycott lasted for more than a year, during which time his home was twice bombed and his life was repeatedly threatened. His stance was vindicated, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state laws on segregation on buses were unconstitutional.
While it was a victory, it was only a small matter where segregation was concerned. In 1957, King and several others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate activities related to the Civil Rights Movement. King was appointed president of the conference and engaged in a grueling schedule of speechmaking and world travel. He still found time to write an autobiographical account of the bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom (Harper, 1958). While on a promotional appearance for the book, he was attacked and stabbed by a mentally troubled African-American woman.
With an increased demand on his time and a packed schedule of lectures and appearances, King left Montgomery and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to return to Atlanta, where he joined his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In his leadership role of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, he encouraged nonviolent demonstrations such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, theaters, and other venues. King met with President John F. Kennedy in October 1962 to press for a decisive and supportive stand from the Democratic administration. He led a now famous protest march in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 during which he was arrested. While incarcerated, he wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a response to the white religious leaders of the city who had been critical of him and his actions. Eventually, the news media made the world aware of the injustices inflicted in the city by publishing photographs and articles showing the brutality of the police. A détente of sorts was reached between the races and Birmingham gradually developed a program for desegregation. King included tales of what happened in Birmingham in his book Why We Can’t Wait (Harper, 1964).
In August 1963, the then-largest Civil Rights demonstration in U.S. history — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — was held, during which some quarter million people, including over 60,000 whites, made their way to the nation’s capital to press for the passage of legislation before Congress. The high point of the march was King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered appropriately at the Lincoln Memorial. He was chosen “Man of the Year” by Time magazine.
Although Congress adopted a Civil Rights bill in 1964, King felt it was merely a start. Racial conflicts continued to boil to the surface with riots breaking out in New York City and other areas. King continued to travel the world, including gaining a special audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. In the fall of 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he turned over the monetary award to various organizations fighting for racial equality, including the SCLC.
Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans in southern states still faced challenges and ingrained racism and segregation. Voting rights was one area, and King and his supporters held a march in Selma, Alabama, and another from Selma to the capital at Montgomery to highlight the issue. Congress responded by passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave federal authorities the jurisdiction to end poll taxes and literacy tests and to monitor all elections.
Working in tandem with the SCLC, King launched a campaign in Chicago aimed at disseminating information and raising awareness of issues like urban poverty and discrimination. The institutional racism of the North, however, proved to be more impervious to King’s nonviolent confrontations. Discrimination was less overt than in the southern states and the politicians, particularly those in Chicago, were more adept at deflecting the allegations.
In 1967, King began to speak out in opposition to American involvement in Southeast Asia. He also began to lay the groundwork for a second March on Washington — this one called the Poor People’s Campaign — during which the poverty-stricken would descend on the U.S. capital and stage sit-ins, rallies, protests, and boycotts aimed at pressuring the administration and businesses to be more responsive to the needs of the indigent. While traveling around the country to raise support for this march, King accepted an invitation to speak in Memphis, Tennessee, where sanitation workers were striking for better working conditions. The initial protest in Memphis on March 28, however, devolved into violence when local gangs started a riot. King vowed to return to lead a peaceful demonstration. True to his word, he returned to the city in early April and was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old.
While a student at Boston University, King met Coretta Scott, who was studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. They married on June 18, 1953, and had four children.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, awarded by Jimmy Carter. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday honoring King. The initial observance of the holiday, the third Monday in January, was held in 1986, but it took some 14 years before all 50 states officially observed the holiday.