Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for faith, equality, and nonviolence throughout his life. Even his name, given to him by his father, seemed to set him on that path.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
On January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, Michael King, Sr., and Alberta Williams King had a son, and they named him Michael King, Jr. Then King, Sr., a pastor, took a trip to Germany and was inspired by the stories of the sixteenth-century priest, Martin Luther, who had broken with the Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation.
When King, Sr., returned to the States, he had his name and his five-year-old son's name changed to Martin Luther King, as a tribute.
When King, Jr., was about six years old, two of his white friends said they couldn't play with him anymore. King's parents explained to their hurt and confused little boy that it was because of segregated schools. King's father felt that racism was wrong, not only because his own people were targets, but also because racism was against the will of God.
A few years later, young Martin Luther King, Jr., performed with his church choir at the Atlanta premiere of the Civil War film, "Gone with the Wind."
When King, Jr., was twelve, he disobeyed his parents and went to watch a parade; while he was out his grandmother died of a heart attack. This event traumatized the boy so much that he jumped from a second-story window, but he was not seriously injured.
King, Jr., attended segregated public schools in Georgia during all of his childhood years, excelling to the point that he skipped grades 9 and 11. He graduated from high school at the age of fifteen.
During his formative years King struggled with his religious beliefs, disliking emotional displays. Eventually a Bible class helped him to find his way back toward a life of serving God.
In 1948 King received his B.A. from Morehouse College in Atlanta, the same Negro college his father and grandfather had attended. In the same year, King was ordained as a Baptist minister.
King then studied theology at Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. He was elected president of his mostly white senior class and was the valedictorian. He also rebelled a bit, having the sort of fun that went against his father's principles. Nevertheless, he received his B.D. in 1951.
King then moved to Boston for his graduate studies. While completing his residency and earning his doctorate degree from Boston University, he met and married Coretta Scott. She was a singer and musician, attending the New England Conservatory in Boston.
In 1954 King became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. By that time, he was also on the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization that supports minorities in the United States.
Between 1955 and 1963 the Kings had four children - Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, and Bernice Albertine.
In the middle of the twentieth century, many public places in the United States were segregated. Not only schools, but also restaurants, restrooms, drinking fountains, and public transportation had restrictions on where "colored people" were welcome, if they were welcome at all.
King did not want his children to grow up in this environment, but he knew that violent protest would never be the answer. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," he said. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
On December 1, 1955, an African-American seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, following a long day of work. She took a seat designated for "colored" passengers. However, as the bus filled up, all of the seats were filled and some white people were standing in the aisle. The bus driver stopped the bus and asked Parks and the others in her row to stand. Parks refused. The driver called the police and had her arrested.
Parks was, in fact, a member of the NAACP, and that very night the local chapter started planning a December 5 boycott of buses in Montgomery. That was the date Parks was scheduled to go on trial. A new group formed - the Montgomery Improvement Association - and they chose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to be their leader. He gave an eloquent speech on December 5, 1955, proclaiming, "There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November."
Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating a local ordinance. Her fine and court fee were minimal, but local African-Americans were angry. They found alternate modes of transportation, either by carpooling, using taxis driven by blacks, or even walking. Montgomery was in chaos and the buses were nearly empty.
On January 30, 1956, King's home was bombed - with his wife and one daughter inside - but they were not injured. During the boycott segregationists burned several black churches. Blacks were arrested for violating an old law against boycotts.
Eventually, in June 1956, a local district court declared segregation laws unconstitutional. The city of Montgomery appealed the decision, but in November 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott dragged on for just over a year - 382 days - with buses sitting unused, budgets blown, and many arrests made, but ultimately Montgomery was forced to end its policy of segregation on public buses.
King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. Taking ideas from Christianity and from Gandhi, the organization offered new leadership, including helping blacks in the South register to vote, giving them a voice.
King was drawn to India, to visit the birthplace of Gandhi. He said, "To other countries, I may go as a tourist but to India I come as a pilgrim." The visit increased his commitment to promoting the civil rights in nonviolent ways: "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."
He began staging sit-ins with groups of students to end segregation at lunch counters in the South. King was arrested in Atlanta, but the mayor had the charges dropped to avoid bad publicity.
In 1960 the Kings moved from Montgomery to Atlanta; King, Jr., joined his father as co-pastor of the family church. Regarding religion, he once commented, "Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial."
In April 1963 King let a massive protest in Birmingham and was arrested. Many were upset, white and black, because children were endangered during this protest. From his cell he wrote his famous "Birmingham Jail Manifesto," defending his actions and taking to task moderate whites who let him down.
On August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington, King gave his iconic I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. More than 200,000 people were in attendance. King improvised much of his speech, based on other speeches he had recently given. One of his advisers had recommended he leave out the "I have a dream" phrase for this event, but luckily King ignored that recommendation. So eloquently he spoke: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Not long after the March on Washington, "TIME" chose Martin Luther King, Jr., as their Man of the Year in 1963.
A major victory for the civil rights movement came when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act granted the federal government the right to enforce desegregation of public accommodations. As the president signed the document, King looked on.
In 1964 King became the youngest man to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace." He continued, "Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it." King donated the prize money to the civil rights cause.
From 1965 to 1967, the civil rights movement made its way into large cities not in the South, including Chicago and L.A. As more white middle-class Americans showed support, some young black power leaders grew restless. They felt that progress was too slow, that King was too passive. Meanwhile, King expanded upon his call for equal rights by pointing out a link between discrimination and poverty. He also stated that the Vietnam War, by the way it was being carried out, was discriminatory to the poor.
On April 3, 1968, the day before his death, King told supporters in a prophetic speech, "I've seen the promised land. 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."
Martin Luther King, Jr., was preparing to give a speech in support of striking garbage workers in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He stepped out onto the balcony of his room in the Lorraine Motel, where he was assassinated. The murder of King sparked riots and demonstrations.
James Earl Ray, the assassin, was captured and convicted, then sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in 1998 of Hepatitis C.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, Legacy
King gave all of his energy to the civil rights movement. Between 1957 and 1968, King reportedly traveled over 6 million miles, gave over 2,500 speeches, wrote five books, and authored countless articles. Following his autopsy, the doctor said King had the heart of a 60-year-old man, despite being only 39; the doctor attributed this to stress. King once said, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
King had been under extensive FBI surveillance from 1963 and 1968, amid allegations of adultery and communist influences.
In 1977 President Carter posthumously awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the only non-president to have a memorial on the National Mall, and he is the only non-president with a national holiday in his honor.
Serving as reminders of the man and his nonviolent demonstrations, over 900 streets in the United States are named for Martin Luther King, Jr.
King was not a perfect man, but he stood tall and demanded equal treatment, no matter the cost. He said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."