In the years since his assassination on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King Jr. has evolved from a prominent civil rights leader into the symbol of the civil rights movement in the United States. He is studied by schoolchildren of all backgrounds; his words are quoted by the powerless and the powerful, by anyone who has a dream to make her or his life better, to better the nation, or the world. Monuments have been dedicated in his honor and institutions such as the Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta that bears his name have been established to carry on his work. In 1986, the U.S. Congress made King unique among twentieth-century Americans by designating his birthday a federal holiday. In 2013, the nation commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington led by King. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was chosen as one of a few historic events to replace the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the back side of the $5 bill.
Was Son of Pastor
Martin Luther King, Jr., was born into a family of Baptist ministers. Martin Luther King Sr., his father, was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, a position the elder King had inherited from his wife's father, Adam Daniel Williams. As the son of a pastor growing up among the black middle class, the young King was afforded some opportunities for education and experience not available to children in poorer urban and rural areas. Yet despite his social standing, he was still subjected to the lessons of segregation because of his color. Although his family tradition was intertwined with the church and expectations were high that "M. L." would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, King first resisted the ministry as a vocation, finding it ill-suited to allow him to address the social problems he had experienced in the South. So, after completing high school early, he entered nearby Morehouse College in 1944 with thoughts of becoming a lawyer or doctor. Later, influenced by the teachings of George D. Kelsey, a religion professor, and Dr. Benjamin Mays, the college's president, King came to understand the social and intellectual tradition of the ministry. By graduation in 1948, he had decided to accept it as his vocation.
In 1948 King entered the Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where for the next three years he studied theology, philosophy, ethics, the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, and the religious and social views of Reinhold Niebuhr. It was also during this time that King first learned of the nonviolent activism of Mohandas Gandhi. While at Crozer, King earned the respect of his professors as well as his classmates. He was elected student-body president, was valedictorian of his class, won a prize as outstanding student, and earned a fellowship for graduate study. He was accepted for doctoral study at Yale, Boston University, and Edinburgh in Scotland. He chose to attend Boston University, where he studied systematic theology with Edgar Sheffield Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. Again he impressed his professors with his passion for learning and his intellect. After completing his coursework, King began a dissertation in which he would compare the religious views of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.
Emerging from Boston University, King had a number of avenues available to him--pursuing a career as a professor, returning to Atlanta to join his father at Ebenezer, or becoming the pastor of his own church, in the North or in the South. He decided to accept the pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the Deep South of Montgomery, Alabama. He installed himself as full-time pastor in September of 1954. During his first year at Dexter, King finished his dissertation and worked to organize his new church, to activate the social and political awareness of his congregation, and to blend his academic learning with the emotional oratory of the Southern preacher. He had begun to settle into his role as preacher and new father when the events of December, 1955, thrust upon him the mantle of local civil rights leader.
Headed Civil Rights Movement
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to abide by one of Montgomery's laws requiring segregated seating on city buses. In response to this incident, several groups within the city's black community, long dissatisfied with the treatment of blacks on public transportation, came together to take action. The NAACP, the Women's Political Council, the Baptist Ministers Conference, the city's AME Zionist ministers, and the community at large united to organize a boycott of the buses. After a successful first day of boycotting, the groups formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to oversee the community action and to work with the city and bus-line officials to bring about fairer treatment of blacks within the existing laws. King was elected the MIA's first president.
For 382 days, King and the black community maintained the boycott while white officials from the city and the bus line resisted their modest demands: courtesy toward black riders, a first-come-first-serve approach to segregated seating, and black drivers for some routes. During this period, the MIA convinced black-owned taxis to reduce their fares to enable boycotters to afford a means of transportation. Then, when the city blocked that measure, the group organized carpools. King was arrested, slandered, received hate mail and phone threats, and his house was bombed; but from the outset, he preached nonviolence to the black boycotters. After the Montgomery city officials refused to be moved to change by a number of related federal court decisions, the black community finally won more than it had asked for when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal court decision that ruled against segregation in Montgomery. On December 21, 1956, the integration of Montgomery city buses became mandatory.
To continue the momentum gained from the victory in Montgomery and to spread the movement across the South, King and other black leaders gathered in early 1957 to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president of the SCLC, King spent the next few years consolidating the organization's position as a social force in the region and establishing himself as its leader. King toured the country giving speeches, appearing at rallies, meeting with elected officials and candidates, and writing a book about the Montgomery experience. In 1958 he traveled to Ghana to join in its independence celebration; in 1959 he traveled to India to meet with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other associates of Gandhi. With demands on his time growing, King decided to resign from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and to accept his father's offer to become co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. This arrangement afforded the younger King the flexibility to devote more time to SCLC activities.
Direct Action against Segregation
From 1960 to 1962, King and the SCLC renewed their direct action against segregation at the voting booth, at schools, at lunch counters, and at bus stations. King also threw his organization's support behind other groups fighting the same battles. There were black college students, who would later organize as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Montgomery, and Atlanta. There were Freedom Rides initiated by the Council on Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge segregation in interstate bus transportation. These efforts contributed to the eventual desegregation of stores, busses, and bus stations.
Yet, along with these successes, King and the civil rights movement also encountered failures. In December of 1961, the SCLC joined members of the black community of Albany, Georgia, in their effort to end segregation in that city. In the end, the white city government and the law enforcement officials refused to make any substantial concessions and avoided resorting to violence. The black organizations involved, on the other hand, were unable to cooperate among themselves and unable to keep Albany's blacks from turning to violence. With the failure in Albany, King's leadership and philosophy of nonviolence as well as the SCLC's planning came under criticism.
Led Nonviolent Protests
King was able to redeem himself in the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, a city considered by many to be the most segregated in the country. King and the SCLC were invited by local black leaders to help them organize a protest to end segregation in downtown stores, to achieve equal opportunity in employment, and to establish a biracial commission to promote further desegregation. In order to attract attention to their demands and to put pressure on local businesses, the protesters employed the march. Birmingham police moved against the first march with clubs and attack dogs and the state court issued an injunction barring further protests. When King and close associate Ralph Abernathy defied the court order, they were arrested and placed in solitary confinement. During his incarceration, criticism by local white clergymen of the movement and King's actions prompted him to write his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
After being tried for contempt and found guilty, King was released on appeal. He rejoined the protesters. When the adult marchers began to lose their enthusiasm, high school students and younger children joined the march. Around 3,000 marchers were arrested, filling up the jails. Later marches were broken up by police using clubs and dogs and firemen with high-pressure hoses. The police brutality directed toward unarmed black men, women, and children outraged the nation and the John F. Kennedy administration. The growing tide of negative publicity soon convinced Birmingham's white businessmen to seek an agreement with the protesters.
In the aftermath of the agreement, white extremists bombed King's hotel and his brother's home, inciting riots by black people. However, the black leaders, the white businessmen, and federal troops sent in by the Kennedy administration were successful in their efforts to halt the violence; the agreement was given time to take hold.
"I Have a Dream" Speech
With the success of Birmingham still fresh in the minds of blacks and whites in the South and North, King was poised to assert himself as a national and international leader. On August 28, 1963, approximately 250,000 blacks and whites marched on Washington, DC, to raise the nation's consciousness of civil rights and to encourage the passage of the Civil Rights Bill before Congress at that time. The march was a cooperative effort of several civil rights organizations--including the Negro American Labor Council, the Urban League, the SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, and CORE--and the movement's largest demonstration. King was the last speaker scheduled to address the crowd gathered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. He began a speech that referred to the lack of progress in securing black rights in the hundred years since Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; by the time he finished, he had deviated from his prepared speech to offer a speech drawn from past sermons and from the inspiration of the moment, his famous "I Have a Dream" address.
National and International Leader
King's stature as a leader of national and international prominence was confirmed in 1964. In January of that year, he became the first black American to be named Time magazine's "Man of the Year." And, in December of that year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the youngest person ever to win the award. The recognition that followed from these and other honors prompted journalists and politicians from around the world to seek King's views on a wide range of world issues. Even so, King remained focused on the "twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice," as he stated in his Nobel acceptance speech. Earlier in 1964, he had attended the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that had put the federal government firmly behind ending segregation and discrimination in public institutions. But blacks still faced barriers to voting throughout the South, and they faced more subtle economic barriers in other regions.
In 1965 and 1966, King and the SCLC decided to take on these barriers. Civil rights groups stepped up their voter registration drives in the South, and King took his strategy of nonviolent confrontation to Selma, Alabama. Marches in Selma and from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery brought publicity to the movement's voting rights demands and gave momentum to congressional efforts to enact legislation to remedy the situation. In August, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed into law. It gave federal authorities the power to end literacy tests and poll taxes and to monitor all elections.
In 1966 King and the SCLC launched a campaign in Chicago, both to expand their influence into the North and to raise awareness of the issues of urban discrimination and poverty as manifested in housing, schooling, and unemployment. The SCLC influenced some changes and put some long-term operations in place such as Operation Breadbasket. However, the campaign was unable to score the kind of success that it had in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Discrimination was more subtle in this northern metropolis than in the segregated South; city officials, including Mayor Richard Daley, were less extreme and more politically astute than their southern counterparts in their response to confrontation; furthermore, Chicago's black population was more divided, with some elements very much prone to violence.
In the last year of his life, King actively expanded the scope of his efforts to include not only civil rights issues but also human rights issues important to people the world over. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the second half of the 1960s, King had grown dissatisfied with the situation. In 1967 he began to speak out consistently against the war. In speeches and rallies around the country, he called for a negotiated settlement. King was recruited by antiwar activists to head an independent ticket for the presidential election of 1968, a position he declined in order to keep his social and moral concerns free from political obligations.
Poor People's Campaign
Late in 1967, King directed his organization to begin laying the groundwork for what would be known as the Poor People's Campaign. He wanted to recruit the poor from urban and rural areas--men and women of all races and backgrounds--and lead them in a campaign for economic rights. The recruited poor, trained in nonviolent direct action, would descend on Washington, DC, and begin a three-month campaign of marches, rallies, sit-ins, and boycotts to pressure the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and leading businessmen to put a more human face on American capitalism.
In March of 1968, while touring the United States to raise support for this new march on Washington, King accepted an invitation to speak on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were striking in an attempt to improve their poor working conditions. After a march organized by local leaders was postponed because of a heavy snowstorm, King joined the rescheduled event on March 28. Shortly after the march began, young gang members initiated violence, igniting a riot that ended with one dead, numerous injuries, and widespread property damage. King vowed to return to personally direct another demonstration in order to reestablish nonviolence in this local dispute.
Again in Memphis to plan this march, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The night before, addressing an audience of 500 at the Mason Temple in downtown Memphis, King had given his last speech, which included these words: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over, and 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."
Criticism and Attempts To Discredit
Although widely regarded as one of the great social leaders of the twentieth century, King has not been without critics. He was closely scrutinized during his life by his colleagues in the SCLC, by other leaders in the civil rights movement, by those he sought to change, and by state and federal officials affected by his actions; he is still scrutinized today by those trying to get behind the symbol to the man and his place in American history.
In SCLC meetings, King often faced disagreements with his lieutenants and advisors over organization, tactics, and campaigns. He received little initial support for his idea to launch the Poor People's Campaign. Within the civil rights movement of the 1960s, King was not universally accepted as its leader and spokesman. Roy Wilkins, his NAACP, and its strategy of seeking change through legislation and court action were in constant competition with King, his SCLC, and its nonviolent direct confrontation for the support of blacks and white integrationists.
The SNCC criticized King for becoming a symbol and his SCLC adults for interfering with student-initiated grassroots movements. Later in the movement, the two groups grew further apart when the SNCC and its leader, Stokely Carmichael, espoused the "black power" ideology of violence and black separatism as the only means to bring about change. Local civil rights organizations were often put off by King's outsiders invading their cities, making headlines, and then leaving never to follow through. Furthermore, numerous civil rights leaders and social commentators severely faulted King for his stand against the war in Vietnam. Some felt he was abusing his prominence to step beyond his expertise; others feared that his linking of the civil rights and the antiwar movements would weaken their cause.
King has also received criticism for more personal aspects of his life. During his career as a civil rights leader, his actions and character were repeatedly placed under a microscope through spying and wiretapping ordered by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Information about King's advisors outside SCLC and their links to communism and homosexuality, as well as King's own extramarital relationships, was gathered for use to discredit the leader and his organization. Most recently, scholars working on a collection of King's papers confirmed in November of 1990 press reports that significant parts of King's PhD dissertation had been lifted from the work of Jack Boozer, a fellow student, and the theologian Paul Tillich.
At a time when new generations of Americans more easily see the symbol of the civil rights movement than the man, the gifted yet human activist, many who were close to King fear that his dream for America runs the risk of fading along with the memories of his life. In his biography of King, Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow quotes one of King's college classmates, educator Charles V. Willie: "By idolizing those whom we honor, we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity--his personal and public struggles that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise."
Memorial on National Mall
In August of 2011, a memorial to King was opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial, constructed of solid granite, contains 17 quotes from King's speeches. Its opening coincided with the forty-eighth anniversary of King's 1963 march on Washington. Two years later, the 50th anniversary of the march was commemorated with a gathering on the National Mall and speeches by Martin Luther King III, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and former Congressman John Lewis, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder and then-mayor of Newark Cory Booker. King's son said that his father's speech was a call to action but that the "task is not done. The journey is not complete. We can and we must do more." Booker said the younger generations should remember that the freedom they enjoy was "bought by the struggles and the sacrifices and the work of those who came before," and that he and others have a "moral obligation to pay it forward."
In early 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced its decision to diversify the portraits and images featured on U.S. currency. Several bills would be redesigned to include images of historic people and events in African American history. The agency planned to feature an image of King's renowned "I Have a Dream" speech on the back of the $5 bill.
On April 4, 2018--the 50th anniversary of King's assassination--thousands of people gathered at ceremonies across the United States to mark the occasion and honor his legacy. A prayer walk and rally were held at the King Memorial in Washington, DC. In Memphis, marchers staged rallies and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Lewis--both contemporaries of King--spoke at events in the city. King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, laid a wreath on her father's grave at a ceremony in Atlanta. At several locations, church bells tolled 39 times to mark King's age at the time of his death.
Original given name, Michael, changed to Martin; born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, GA; assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, TN; originally buried in South View Cemetery, Atlanta, reinterred at Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta; son of Martin Luther (a minister) and Alberta Christine (a teacher; maiden name, Williams) King; married Coretta Scott (a concert singer), June 18, 1953; children: Yolanda Denise, Martin Luther III, Dexter Scott, Bernice Albertine. Education: Morehouse College, BA, 1948; Crozer Theological Seminary, SD, 1951; Boston University, PhD, 1955, DD, 1959; Chicago Theological Seminary, DD, 1957; attended classes at University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Religion: Baptist. Memberships: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Alpha Phi Alpha, Sigma Pi Phi, Elks.
Licensed to preach by Ebenezer Baptist Church deacons, 1947; ordained Baptist minister, 1948; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, pastor, 1954-60; president, Montgomery Improvement Association, 1965-66; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, founder, 1957, president and leader of civil rights campaigns, 1957-68; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, co-pastor with father, 1960-68. Vice President, National Sunday School and Baptist Teaching Union Congress of National Baptist Convention.
Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1957; L.H.D. from Morehouse College, 1957, and Central State College, 1958; LL.D. from Howard University, 1957, and Morgan State College, 1958; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1958, for Stride Toward Freedom; named Man of the Year, 1963; Nobel Peace Prize, 1964; Judaism and World Peace Award from Synagogue Council of America, 1965; Brotherhood Award, 1967, for Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?; Nehru Award for International Understanding, 1968; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977; Congressional Gold Medal, 2004; received numerous awards for leadership of Montgomery movement; literary prizes were named in King's honor by the National Book Committee and by Harper & Row.
- Abernathy, Ralph David, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Harper, 1989. Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Morrow, 1986.
- King, Coretta Scott, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. Holt, 1969.
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, Harper, 1986. Oates, Stephen B., Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper, 1982.
- Playboy Interviews, Playboy Press, 1967.
- "Anti-Slavery Activist Harriet Tubman to Replace Jackson on $20 Bill," USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2016/04/20/report-lew-considered-anthony-10-bill/83274530/ (November 20, 2017).
- "March on Washington's 50th Anniversary Commemoration Draws Tens of Thousands," CBS News.com http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57599979/march-on-washingtons-50th-anniversary-commemoration-draws-tens-of-thousands/(October 25, 2013).
- "Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/mlkm/historyculture/index.htm, (April 3, 2013).
- "'There's Been an Awakening': Rallies Across Nation Mark 50th Anniversary of King's Death," USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/04/04/theres-been-awakening-rallies-mark-50th-anniversary-kings-death/484865002/(August 22, 2018).