Martin Luther King Jr.January 1929 – April 1968
Born in Atlanta, Georgia as Michael King Jr, he followed his father Michael King Sr. to adopt the name Martin Luther King, Jr. He attended Booker T. Washington High School and then earned a degree in Sociology from Morehouse College. He attended Chester Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary and earned his doctorate from Boston University. In 1953, he married Coretta Scott who was attending the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, he became the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In 1955 he completed his doctorate.
King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1957. He became its leader influenced by India’s Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy. Then, because of Rosa Parks’s refusal to make room for white passengers on a city bus, she was arrested, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. King was thrust into leadership of this movement, and his youth and speaking ability helped the boycott become successful.
In 1963, he was imprisoned and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” expressing his opposition to conservative white preachers asking him to be patient in his call for civil rights. In 1960, King became co-pastor with his father at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In 1963, his “I Have a Dream Speech” during the March on Washington solidified his leadership of the Civil Rights movement. He influenced President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Because of the supposed failings of the movement, King’s non-violent philosophy was openly questioned as an effective civil rights technique. However, from 1965 1967, King continued on with his non-violent movement, going north to the Chicago area. It was also at this time that he openly expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War, which had been going on for several years.
In April of 1868, King took his movement to Memphis in support of the Sanitation Workers strike. He was assassinated there at the Lorraine Hotel. The result was mass rioting across the country, and the later enshrinement of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a martyr to the Civil Rights movement. In 1983, a national holiday was named in his honor to be celebrated every January 15 th.
Throughout his life, he believed in the power of education to influence lives for the better. He said: “The function of education is to teach one to think and to think critically . . . Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986.