Martin Luther King Day

Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) Born in Atlanta, GA on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., pastor and civil rights leader, and Alberta Williams King, whose father was the Rev. A.D. Williams, predecessor to King Sr. as pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist church, and a founder of Atlanta's chapter of the NAACP.

He entered Morehouse College at the age of 15, and was ordained a Baptist minister at 17. He graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, PA. as class president at 22, married Coretta Scott in June 1953, at 24, and received a doctorate in systematic theology in 1955, at age 26. By this time, the core of King's philosophy of nonviolent protest had been formed, based on the ideals of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. King returned to the south and accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In December of 1955, Rosa Lee Parks, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man. The black community chose Dr.King to organize a boycott to end racial segregation in public transportation. King gained national prominence during the course of this 381-day action, which deserves more study than this short biography allows. Despite efforts to suppress the movement, the Supreme Court's mandate outlawed all segregated public transportation in the city.

Clearly a victory for nonviolent protest, King emerged as a highly respected leader and was chosen as president of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In 1958, King published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. The following year, he resigned from Dexter and began assisting his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer in Atlanta. With Atlanta being the home of the SCLC headquarters, this move enabled King to participate more effectively in the burgeoning national civil rights movement.

With effective change in the distant horizon, black-rights activists became impatient with the speed, or lack thereof, of change. With SCLC proponents focusing on litigation and reconciliation, other groups were demanding change "by any means possible." These differences of ideology between the SCLC and other groups were inevitable, but King's prestige ensured that nonviolence, although not universally popular, remained the official mode of resistance. In 1963 he led a massive civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Ala., and organized drives for black voter registration, desegregation, and better education and housing throughout the South. During these nonviolent campaigns he was arrested several times, generating newspaper headlines throughout the world. In June, President Kennedy reacted to the Birmingham protests by submitting broad civil rights legislation to Congress (the Civil Rights Act of 1964). King led the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

King's effectiveness began to wane as the conflicting ideals held between the non-violent SCLC supporters and the other factions became stronger, disuniting black communities. In addition, there was increasing resistance from national political leaders; the efforts of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to undermine King's leadership was intensified; and the support of many white liberals was lost due to his criticism of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

On April 3, 1968, King spoke of having "been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land." The following day, while seeking to assist a garbage workers' strike in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray, a white escaped convict.

Some 100,000 people attended his funeral in Atlanta. In 1983 the third Monday in January was designated a federal legal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday; his Atlanta birthplace and grave site have been made into a national historic site.