Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (Jan. 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) was a pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.
He was born Michael King, but his father changed his name in honor of the German reformer Martin Luther. A Baptist minister, King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and after the success of this campaign he decided to make the fight for civil rights his lifetime goal.
Needing an organization to work from he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, serving as its first president.
With the SCLC, King led an unsuccessful struggle against segregation in Albany, Ga., in 1962, and organized nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Ala, that attracted national attention following television news coverage of the brutal police response. King also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
On Oct. 14, 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. In 1965, he and the SCLC helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches and the following year, he took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, King expanded his focus to include poverty and speak against the Vietnam War, alienating many of his allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam.”
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, where he was organizing a march in support of equal pay for garbage collectors there. His death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities.
King 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. In addition, a county was rededicated in his honor. A memorial statue on the National Mall was opened to the public in 2011.
THE REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. is welcomed with a kiss by his wife Coretta after leaving court in Montgomery, Ala., March 22, 1956. Dr. King was found guilty of conspiracy to boycott city buses in a campaign to desegregate the bus system, but a judge suspended his $500 fine pending appeal. (Associated Press Photo)
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. King became the youngest assistant manager of a newspaper delivery station for the Atlanta Journal in 1942 at age 13. During his junior year, he won first prize in an oratorical contest sponsored by the Negro Elks Club in Dublin, Ga. Returning home to Atlanta, him and his teacher were ordered by the driver to stand so White passengers could sit down. King refused initially, but complied after his teacher informed him that he would be breaking the law if he did not go along with the order. He later characterized this incident as “the angriest I have ever been in my life.” A precocious student, he skipped both the ninth and the twelfth grades of high school. At age 15, King passed the exam and entered Morehouse. The summer before his last year at Morehouse, in 1947, an 18-year old King made the choice to enter the ministry after he concluded 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, he graduated from Morehouse with a B.A. degree in sociology, and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., from which he graduated with a B.Div. degree in 1951. King was elected president of the student body.
King began doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his PhD. Degree in 1955, with a dissertation on “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.
King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., when he was 25 years old, in 1954. As a Christian minister, his main influence was Jesus Christ and the Christian gospels, which he would almost always quote in his religious meetings, speeches at church, and in public discourses. King’s faith was strongly based in Jesus’ commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies, praying for them and blessing them. His non-violent thought was also based in the injunction to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ teaching of putting the sword back into its place (Matthew 26:52). In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, King urged action consistent with what he describes as Jesus’ “extremist” love, and also quoted numerous other Christian pacifist authors, which was very usual for him. In another sermon, he stated:
“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.”
His study of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle in India also had a lot to do with his tactics of nonviolence as well as the general knowledge of most Black Southerners that an armed confrontation would be disastrous for Blacks.
In his speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he stated that he just wanted to do God’s will.
Veteran African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin served as King’s main advisor and mentor in the late 1950s.
Mahatma Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, King had it for a long time…he wanted to take a trip to India. With assistance from the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee, he was able to make the journey in April 1959. The trip to India affected King, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.”
THE KING FAMILY is pictured at home in Atlanta: from left, Martin Luther King III, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Dexter, 4, and Yolanda, 9. June 20, 1965. (Associated Press Photo)
One-aspect scholars haven’t dealt with for the non-violent method of King is common sense and common knowledge of the South. Just about every Southerner had a gun and could use them and had demonstrated this many times in the past when Blacks spoke out. So if Blacks took up guns in the South they would have in most cases been eliminated quickly, and probably would have been supported by many Whites in the north. King and other activists throughout the South understood this.
As the leader of the SCLC, King maintained a policy of not publicly endorsing a U.S. political party or candidate: “I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either.” King stated that Black Americans, as well as other disadvantaged Americans, should be compensated for historical wrongs. In an interview conducted for Playboy in 1965, he said that granting Black Americans only equality could not realistically close the economic gap between them and Whites. King said that he did not seek a full restitution of wages lost to slavery, which he believed impossible, but proposed a government compensatory program of $50 billion over ten years to all disadvantaged groups.
He posited that “the money spent would be more than amply justified by the benefits that would accrue to the nation through a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils”. He presented this idea as an application of the common law regarding settlement of unpaid labor, but clarified that he felt that the money should not be spent exclusively on Blacks. He stated, “It should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.”
(Information for this article was obtained from various sources, including Wikipedia, “From Slavery to Freedom,” “Before the Mayflower,” and “Biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”)