KING, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-68). Inspired by the belief that love and peaceful protest could eliminate social injustice, Martin Luther King, Jr., became one of the outstanding black leaders in the United States. He aroused whites and blacks alike to protest racial discrimination, poverty, and war. A champion of nonviolent resistance to oppression, he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1964.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 15, 1929. His father, Martin, Sr., was the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a black congregation. His mother, Alberta Williams King, was a schoolteacher. Martin had an older sister, Christine, and a younger brother, Alfred Daniel.
A bright student, he was admitted to Morehouse College at 15, without completing high school. He decided to become a minister and at 18 was ordained in his father’s church. After graduating from Morehouse in 1948, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa. He was the valedictorian of his class in 1951 and won a graduate fellowship. At Boston University he received a Ph.D. in theology in 1955.
In Boston King met Coretta Scott. They were married in 1953 and had two sons, Martin Luther III and Dexter Scott, and two daughters, Yolanda Denise and Bernice Albertine.
King had been impressed by the teachings of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi on nonviolent resistance. King wrote, “I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” He became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954.
In December 1955 King was chosen to head the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed by the black community to lead a boycott of the segregated city buses. During the boycott King’s home was bombed, but he persuaded his followers to remain nonviolent despite threats to their lives and property. Late in 1956 the United States Supreme Court forced desegregation of the buses. King believed that the boycott proved that “there is a new Negro in the South, with a new sense of dignity and destiny.” In 1957 King became the youngest recipient of the Spingarn Medal, an award presented annually to an outstanding black person by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1958 King became president of a group later known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), formed to carry on civil-rights activities in the South. King inspired blacks throughout the South to hold peaceful sit-ins and freedom rides to protest segregation.
A visit to India in 1959 gave King a long-awaited opportunity to study Gandhi’s techniques of nonviolent protest. In 1960 King became copastor of his father’s church in Atlanta. The next year he led a “nonviolent army” to protest discrimination in Albany, Ga. King was jailed in 1963 during a successful campaign to achieve the desegregation of many public facilities in Birmingham, Ala. In a moving appeal, known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he replied to several white clergymen who felt that his efforts were ill timed. King argued that Asian and African nations were fast achieving political independence while “we still creep at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
In 1964 King became the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize. He regarded it not only as a personal honor but also as an international tribute to the nonviolent civil-rights movement. In 1965 King led a drive to register black voters in Selma, Ala. The drive met with violent resistance. In protest of this treatment, thousands of demonstrators conducted a five-day march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery.
King was disappointed that the progress of civil rights in the South had not been matched by improvements in the lives of Northern blacks. In response to the riots in poverty-stricken black urban neighborhoods in 1965, he was determined to focus the nation’s attention on the living conditions of blacks in Northern cities. In 1966 he established a headquarters in a Chicago, Ill., slum apartment. From this base he organized protests against the city’s discrimination in housing and employment.
King combined his civil-rights campaigns with a strong stand against the Vietnam War. He believed that the money and effort spent on war could be used to combat poverty and discrimination. He felt that he would be a hypocrite if he protested racial violence without also condemning the violence of war. Militant black leaders began to attack his appeals for nonviolence. They accused him of being influenced too much by whites. Government officials criticized his stand on Vietnam. Some black leaders felt that King’s statements against war diverted public attention from civil rights.
King inspired and planned the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C., in 1968 to dramatize the relationship of poverty to urban violence. But he did not live to take part in it. Early in 1968 he traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to support a strike of poorly paid sanitation workers. There, on April 4, he was assassinated by a sniper, James Earl Ray. King’s death shocked the nation and precipitated rioting by blacks in many cities. He was buried in Atlanta under a monument inscribed with the final words of his famous “I Have a Dream” address. Taken from an old slave song, the inscription read: “Free at Last,/ Free at Last,/ Thank God Almighty,/ I’m Free at Last.”
King’s brief career greatly advanced the cause of civil rights in the United States. His efforts spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His energetic personality and persuasive oratory helped unite many blacks in a search for peaceful solutions to racial oppression. Although King’s views were challenged by blacks who had lost faith in nonviolence, his belief in the power of nonviolent protest remained strong. His writings include ‘Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story’ (1958); ‘Strength to Love’ (1963); ‘Why We Can’t Wait’ (1964); and ‘Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?’ (1967).
In 1977 King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his battle against prejudice. In 1986 the United States Congress established a national holiday in King’s honor to be observed on the third Monday in January. (See also Black Americans.)