The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (15 January 1929– 4 April 1968) was the charismatic leader of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He directed the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, which attracted scrutiny by a wary, divided nation, but his leadership and the resulting Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation brought him fame. He formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to coordinate nonviolent protests and delivered over 2,500 speeches addressing racial injustice, but his life was cut short by an assassin in 1968.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Michael King Sr., pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Alberta Williams, a Spelman College graduate and former schoolteacher. King lived with his parents, a sister, and a brother in the Victorian home of his maternal grandparents.
Martin—named Michael Lewis until he was 5—thrived in a middle-class family, going to school, playing football and baseball, delivering newspapers, and doing odd jobs. Their father was involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had led a successful campaign for equal wages for White and Black Atlanta teachers. When Martin’s grandfather died in 1931, Martin’s father became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, serving for 44 years.
After attending the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin in 1934, King Sr. changed his and his son’s name from Michael King to Martin Luther King, after the Protestant reformist. King Sr. was inspired by Martin Luther’s courage of confronting institutionalized evil.
King entered Morehouse College at 15. King’s wavering attitude toward his future career in the clergy led him to engage in activities typically not condoned by the church. He played pool, drank beer, and received his lowest academic marks in his first two years at Morehouse.
King studied sociology and considered law school while reading voraciously. He was fascinated by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” and its idea of noncooperation with an unjust system. King decided that social activism was his calling and religion the best means to that end. He was ordained as a minister in February 1948, the year he graduated with a sociology degree at age 19.
In September 1948, King entered the predominately White Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania. He read works by great theologians but despaired that no philosophy was complete within itself. Then, hearing a lecture about Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, he became captivated by his concept of nonviolent resistance. King concluded that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through nonviolence, could be a powerful weapon for his people.
In 1951, King graduated at the top of his class with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. In September of that year, he enrolled in doctoral studies at Boston University’s School of Theology.
While in Boston, King met Coretta Scott, a singer studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. While King knew early on that she had all the qualities he desired in a wife, initially, Coretta was hesitant about dating a minister. The couple married on June 18, 1953. King’s father performed the ceremony at Coretta’s family home in Marion, Alabama. They returned to Boston to complete their degrees.
King was invited to preach in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which had a history of civil rights activism. The pastor was retiring. King captivated the congregation and became the pastor in April 1954. Coretta, meanwhile, was committed to her husband’s work but was conflicted about her role. King wanted her to stay home with their four children: Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice. Explaining her feelings on the issue, Coretta told Jeanne Theoharis in a 2018 article in The Guardian, a British newspaper:
“I once told Martin that although I loved being his wife and a mother, if that was all I did I would have gone crazy. I felt a calling on my life from an early age. I knew I had something to contribute to the world.”
And to a degree, King seemed to agree with his wife, saying he fully considered her a partner in the struggle for civil rights as well as on all other issues with which he was involved.
In the summer of 1964, King’s nonviolent concept was challenged by deadly riots in the North. King believed their origins were segregation and poverty and shifted his focus to poverty, but he couldn’t garner support. He organized a campaign against poverty in 1966 and moved his family into one of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, but he found that strategies successful in the South didn’t work in Chicago. His efforts were met with “institutional resistance, skepticism from other activists and open violence,” according to Matt Pearce in an article in the Los Angeles Times, published in January 2016, the 50th anniversary of King’s efforts in the city. Even as he arrived in Chicago, King was met by “a line of police and a mob of angry white people,” according to Pearce’s article. King even commented on the scene:
“I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago. Yes, it’s definitely a closed society. We’re going to make it an open society.”
Despite the resistance, King and the SCLC worked to fight “slumlords, realtors and Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic machine,” according to the Times. But it was an uphill effort. “The civil rights movement had started to splinter. There were more militant activists who disagreed with King’s nonviolent tactics, even booing King at one meeting,” Pearce wrote. Black people in the North (and elsewhere) turned from King’s peaceful course to the concepts of Malcolm X.
King refused to yield, addressing what he considered the harmful philosophy of Black Power in his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” King sought to clarify the link between poverty and discrimination and to address America’s increased involvement in Vietnam, which he considered unjustifiable and discriminatory toward those whose incomes were below the poverty level as well as Black people.
King’s last major effort, the Poor People’s Campaign, was organized with other civil rights groups to bring impoverished people to live in tent camps on the National Mall starting April 29, 1968.
Earlier that spring, King had gone to Memphis, Tennessee, to join a march supporting a strike by Black sanitation workers. After the march began, riots broke out; 60 people were injured and one person was killed, ending the march.
On April 3, King gave what became his last speech. He wanted a long life, he said, and had been warned of danger in Memphis but said death didn’t matter because he’d “been to the mountaintop” and seen “the promised land.”
On April 4, 1968, King stepped onto the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. A rifle bullet tore into his face. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital less than an hour later. King’s death brought widespread grief to a violence-weary nation. Riots exploded across the country.
King’s body was brought home to Atlanta to lie at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he had co-pastored with his father for many years. At King’s April 9, 1968, funeral, great words honored the slain leader, but the most apropos eulogy was delivered by King himself, via a recording of his last sermon at Ebenezer:
“If any of you are around when I meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral…I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others…And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
King had achieved much in the short span of 11 years. With accumulated travel topping 6 million miles, King could have gone to the moon and back 13 times. Instead, he traveled the world, making over 2,500 speeches, writing five books, and leading eight major nonviolent efforts for social change. King was arrested and jailed 29 times during his civil rights work, mainly in cities throughout the South, according to the website Face2Face Africa.1
King’s legacy today lives through the Black Lives Matter movement, which is physically nonviolent but lacks Dr. King’s principle on “the internal violence of the spirit” that says one should love, not hate, their oppressor. Dara T. Mathis wrote in an April 3, 2018, article in The Atlantic, that King’s legacy of
“militant nonviolence lives on in the pockets of mass protests” of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country. But Mathis added:
“Conspicuously absent from the language modern activists use, however, is an appeal to America’s innate goodness, a call to fulfill the promise set forth by its Founding Fathers.”
And Mathis further noted:
“Although Black Lives Matter practices nonviolence as a matter of strategy, love for the oppressor does not find its way into their ethos.”
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan created a national holiday to celebrate the man who did so much for the United States. Reagan summed up King’s legacy with these words that he gave during a speech dedicating the holiday to the fallen civil rights leader:
“So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, ‘All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning,…land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”
Coretta Scott King, who had fought hard to see the holiday established and was at the White House ceremony that day, perhaps summed up King’s legacy most eloquently, sounding wistful and hopeful that her husband’s legacy would continue to be embraced:
“He loved unconditionally. He was in constant pursuit of truth, and when he discovered it, he embraced it. His nonviolent campaigns brought about redemption, reconciliation, and justice. He taught us that only peaceful means can bring about peaceful ends, that our goal was to create the love community.
“America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King, Jr., became her preeminent nonviolent commander.”
Written by: Mandy Law