On January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born to Rev. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr. As was the custom, MLK, Jr. was born in the family home located at 501 Auburn Avenue, N.E. in Atlanta, Georgia. He was the second child and first son born to Rev. and Mrs. King, Sr. At birth, MLK, Jr. was named ‘‘Michael’’ Luther King, Jr. after the Senior King. When MLK, Jr. was five years old, the Senior King changed both of their first names from ‘‘Michael’’ to ‘‘Martin.’’
MLK, Jr. excelled in his studies from an early age— he skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades of high school, and, as a result, he entered Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia) at fifteen years old. In 1948, he earned his BA degree in Sociology from Morehouse. In 1951, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozier Theological Seminary (Chester, Pennsylvania). At Crozier, among his various accolades, he was both senior class president and valedictorian. Four years later, in 1955, MLK, Jr. earned his Ph.D. degree in Systemic Theology from Boston University.
Having been ordained into the Baptist Ministry in 1948 (at nineteen years old)—that year, MLK, Jr. accepted the position of assistant pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church (Atlanta, Georgia)—the ‘‘family’’ church. MLK, Jr. served as assistant pastor at Ebenezer for approximately seven years. Both MLK, Jr.’s grandfather and father—Rev. MLK, Sr.—served as pastor of Ebenezer (MLK, Sr. served as pastor for a total of forty-four years—even afterMLK,Jr.’s death).
MLK, Jr. and Coretta Scott were married in 1953. They later had four children (born from 1955 through 1963). After completing his Ph.D. studies in 1954, Dr. King accepted the position of pastor at Dexter Avenue Church (Montgomery, Alabama). He served as pastor from 1954 until 1959.
In 1959, MLK, Jr. resigned as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to return to Atlanta to become a more full-time director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that he had founded in 1957. He remained associated with SCLC until his death in 1968. In addition, Rev. King, Jr. served as copastor (with his father) of Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1960 until 1968.
From the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968, Dr. MLK, Jr. became internationally known for his incredible efforts and strides toward civil rights for those living in poverty and facing racial discrimination within the United States. Throughout his lifetime, MLK, Jr. espoused and followed the teachings and philosophy of ‘‘passivist resistance’’ or ‘‘nonviolent noncooperation’’ as espoused by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–948), who was known as the ‘‘Father of Nonviolent Agitation.’’
It should be noted that Dr. MLK, Jr.’s activities, merits, and efforts are too numerous to completely detail in encyclopedic form. As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Dr. King launched the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott protesting the fact that black riders were forced to sit or stand in the back of the bus and use the back door for entry while White patrons sat in the front and used the front door (the front seats remained empty when no White riders were present). The protest was sparked by the refusal of Ms. Rosa Parks to remove herself to the back of the bus and relinquish her seat to a White patron. After a 381-day protest, black riders won equal access to public transportation services in Montgomery, Alabama.
During the boycott, Dr. King, Jr. was arrested—at that time, it was illegal in the State of Alabama to boycott. This would be the first of more than thirty arrests that Dr. King, Jr. would endure in his efforts to bring freedom and equality to all citizens.
In 1963, Dr. King led sit-in demonstrations to desegregate lunch counters and eating facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. He was arrested during one such demonstration, ironically that particular march was in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—in April 1963; while imprisoned, he wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Letter has been praised as ‘‘one of the most important documents of nonviolent protest in the civil rights movement.’’ As an apt illustration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence and a Christ-like acceptance of personal responsibility, in part, the Letter states:
One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
MLK, Jr. encouraged citizens from all corners of society to engage in nonviolent protest with equality for all as the goal. Assisting in the Birmingham march and sit-ins throughout the South were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been founded in 1960 by college students to organize lunch counter sit-ins and other antisegregation demonstrations. In May of 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Birmingham, Alabama, segregation ordinances (including lunch counters) were unconstitutional.
Decrying inequality between the races, on August 28, 1963, the now-famous ‘‘March on Washington’’ was held. At that time, Black unemployment was eleven percent, whereas White unemployment stood at five percent. Similarly, on average, White families earned $6,500 per year, whereas an average Black family earned $3,500 per year. During the March on Washington, MLK, Jr. made his historic I Have a Dream Speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This integrated protest march drew more than 250,000 protestors to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.—at that time, the largest march and protest of its kind.
To oppose racial inequality in voting rights, in March of 1965, Rev. King and about 4,000 members of the SCLC held a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (the ‘‘Selma-to-Montgomery March’’)—with the protection of federal troops— before reaching their destination, nearly 30,000 supporters swelled the ranks of the march. At the capitol, Dr. MLK, Jr. gave his well-known How Long?. . .Not Long? Speech. During this time, and as a testament to the teachings and labors of MLK, Jr., the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In honorarium, MLK, Jr. and other civil rights activists were present at the Presidential bill signing.
In July of 1967, due largely to the efforts of Dr. King, Jr. and members of the SCLC, it was reported by the Justice Department that—in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—more than fifty percent of all eligible African-American residents were registered to vote.
In April of 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to help lead a protest by sanitation workers against low pay rates and substandard working conditions. In late-March, Dr. King, Jr. had led 6,000 protestors through downtown Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. With a predictive title, Dr. King delivered his final public speech—I’ve Been to the Mountaintop—in Memphis on April 3, 1968. In prophetic terms, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exclaimed:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long time, longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. . .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 fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
The following day, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. Four days after Dr. MLK, Jr.’s assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the first bill in the United States Congress proposing the creation of a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. It would take another two decades for Rep. Conyers’ dream to become a reality.
During his lifetime, MLK, Jr. was awarded innumerable awards and honorary degrees—both nationally and internationally. For example, he was named Time Magazine’s Man of the year in 1963. In addition, as perhaps the ultimate testament to his efforts, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. At thirty-five years old, he was the youngest man to earn this honor and was only the second American so awarded.
In addition to his public works for civil rights and peace, in a short ten-year time-span, Dr. King wrote and published six books and numerous articles. The titles, publication dates, and general topics of the books are as follows: Stride Towards Freedom, 1958 (Montgomery Bus Boycott); The Measure of a Man, 1959 (selected sermons); Why We Can’t Wait, 1963 (Birmingham Campaign); Strength to Love, 1963 (selected sermons); Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967 (world-related issues); and The Trumpet of Conscience, 1968 (posthumously) (Massey Lectures).
States began to hold statewide (and statesanctioned) celebrations of the MLK, Jr. Holiday beginning with Illinois in 1973. Finally, after nearly twenty years in the making, to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation enacting the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday. Unfortunately, some states like Arizona, Mississippi, and New Hampshire took many years to acknowledge the holiday.
In August of 1994, President William Clinton enacted the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act. The intent of the law is to expand the purpose of the King Holiday to encompass ‘‘community service, interracial communication, and youth anti-violence initiatives.’’ To this end, the King Center entreats every American ‘‘to commemorate this Holiday by making your personal commitment to serve humanity.. . . And with our hearts open to this spirit of unconditional love, we can indeed achieve the ‘Beloved Community’ of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.’’
On December 8, 1999, a jury in Memphis, Tennessee, concluded that governmental agencies (including the City of Memphis, the State of Tennessee, and the federal government) were part of a conspiracy to assassinate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If we make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
MLK, Jr., Beyond Vietnam, (at the Riverside Church, NYC) April 4, 1967
CYNTHIA G. HAWKINS-LEO´ N
References and Further Reading
See also Demonstrations and Sit-Ins; Marches and Demonstrations; Segregation