King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1929–1968

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Editor: David S. Tanenhaus
Date: 2008
Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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About this Person
Born: January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Died: April 04, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Civil rights activist
Other Names: King, Michael Luther, Jr.; MLK
Full Text: 
Page 124

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1929–1968

Martin Luther King Jr. was an American civil rights leader who helped bring about change through nonviolent protests in the 1950s and 1960s. King is regarded as one of the greatest orators in the history of the United States, and his inspirational speeches and forceful personality influenced presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court to effect positive change in the area of racial prejudice throughout American society.


Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father and grandfather were both Baptist ministers, and King himself would become an ordained Baptist minister at the age of nineteen. After attending segregated public schools in Georgia, King took the college entrance examinations during his junior year of high school. King's scores were so high that he was admitted at the age of fifteen to Morehouse College in Atlanta, a traditionally all-male and all-black institution of higher learning. After graduating from Morehouse with a degree in sociology in 1948, King accepted a fellowship at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he won an award for most outstanding student and served as the class president and valedictorian. King received his bachelor of divinity degree from Crozer in 1951 and began to pursue a Ph.D. in theology at Boston University. King's dissertation was titled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” and he received a doctoral degree from Boston University in 1955 (Bruns 2006).


At twenty-six years old, King became minister of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King became involved in a boycott of the Montgomery bus system in December 1955 because of segregation policies that forced African Americans to sit in the back of city buses. These policies, known as separate-but-equal or Jim Crow laws, arose in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861–1865) when southern lawmakers strategically separated whites and blacks in public places such as schools, restrooms, buses, theaters, trains, and restaurants.

While the separate-but-equal policies appeared to be neutral at face value, they brought about discrimination against African Americans. For example, public schools for African Americans were given insufficient funding by the states, causing black students to receive a much lower quality of education than white students. As evidenced by the Montgomery bus system, African Americans were forced to sit at the back of buses or may even have been required to give up a seat for a white person. Such policies were humiliating for African Americans and instilled a sense of inferiority that was sanctioned by the law (Wormser 2003).

Although the U.S. Supreme Court had endorsed segregation with its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Jim Crows laws in the area of public education were found to have violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause in Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I), 347 U. S. 483 (1954). The landmark decision in Brown I began the process of Jim Crow laws eventually being declared unconstitutional in every area of society. While the Brown I decision in theory Page 125  |  Top of Articlestruck down segregation in the public school systems, many areas of the South, including Montgomery, initially resisted the implementation of the Brown I decision, and the Supreme Court had no way to enforce the decision without support from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress, which publicly opposed the Court's ruling. In fact, the Supreme Court felt obligated to issue a second ruling, Brown v. Board of Education (Brown II), 349 U. S. 294 (1955), requiring all public school systems to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Because the Supreme Court chose such vague wording and refused to issue a specific deadline for an end to segregation, the Court appeared to most legal observers to be too weak, on its own, to force integration upon American society (Rosenberg 2008; Kluger 2004).

Because King had experienced firsthand the segregation policies of the South as a student in the Georgia public schools, he encouraged others to use nonviolent methods, such as boycotts, to express opposition to segregation laws. King became an official leader of the civil rights movement when he was elected to the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was the organization mainly responsible for leading the successful boycott of the city's segregation policies. Because of King's charismatic personality and inspirational speeches that emphasized nonviolence as a method of protest, he gained national prominence as a civil rights leader during the 1950s and 1960s, and his methods of protest spread quickly throughout the South (Bennett 1968).


After the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 with leaders of black churches in the South. The conference aimed at using nonviolent protests, also known as civil disobedience, as a means toward achieving integration and equality for African Americans. King and SCLC were very successful at employing nonviolent protests throughout the South, and they strategically used the media to draw attention to the injustices perpetrated by segregationist authorities. For example, King was arrested for protesting against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and his arrest drew the attention of President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who helped to secure King's release from jail. While King sat in the Birmingham jail, he wrote a letter in response to a number of white clergymen who had tried to persuade blacks from supporting King and his “direct action” of using protests to achieve change. The white clergymen had urged blacks to allow the courts to bring about change and to avoid direct confrontation in the streets. King's “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” became an eloquent statement about the push for racial equality, and it inspired others to believe that direct action was the only way to bring about civil rights for African Americans (Garrow 1986).

In March 1963, King participated in the March on Washington, in which black leaders demanded that the federal government end racial segregation, protect blacks from discrimination in employment, and provide safety for civil rights workers. King's speech during the March on Washington immortalized him as a leader of the civil rights movement. The speech was titled “I Have a Dream,” and ranks as one of the most inspirational and moving speeches in the history of the United States. In 1964 King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at ending racial discrimination.

In large part because of the success of King's tactics of protest and direct action against southern lawmakers, as well as his inspirational speeches, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the national Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based upon race in public accommodations such as schools, hotels, restaurants, and other establishments. The legislation was passed under Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce and the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U. S. 241 (1964). In a unanimous opinion for the Court, Justice Tom C. Clark (1899–1977) held that because American society had become more diverse and mobile, public establishments could not deny service to African Americans without burdening interstate commerce and, in turn, the national economy.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by Congress to ensure protection against racial discrimination in the process of voting. This legislation enabled the Department of Justice to intervene and monitor voting registration, and to institute changes where districts had created structural obstacles, such as literacy tests, to keep African Americans from voting. Whereas the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed African Americans the right to vote, southern states had created many obstacles during the Reconstruction era to prevent them from exercising this right. The Voting Rights Act empowered the federal government to guarantee the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment (Hensley, Smith, and Baugh 1997). The trend toward expanding civil rights continued throughout the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) to strike down the last of the antimiscegenation laws that prohibited marriage between a white person and an African American (Cortner 2001).

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In March 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to demonstrate support for black sanitation workers who had been on strike. The black workers had been receiving unfair treatment, as evidenced by the fact that white workers were paid when sent home because of bad weather, but blacks were denied such compensation. On April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King was shot and killed. Two months after the assassination, James Earl Ray (1928–1998) was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport and charged with the murder. Ray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. Three days after he entered his guilty plea, Ray denied shooting King and stated that a person named “Raoul” whom he had met in Montreal, Canada, was responsible for the assassination. Ray's testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations raised serious questions about King's death, and the committee concluded in 1978 that King was probably murdered as a result of a conspiracy. The committee recommended that the federal government investigate the assassination more fully and the Department of Justice complied with an investigation in 2000 but found no credible evidence to support the allegations of conspiracy (Huie 1997; McMillan 1976; U.S. Department of Justice, 2000).


Bennett, Lerone, Jr. 1968. What Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. 3rd ed. Chicago: Johnson.

Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Branch, Taylor. 1997. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Branch, Taylor. 2006. At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bruns, Roger. 2006. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Cortner, Richard. 2001. Civil Rights and Public Accommodations: The Heart of Atlanta Motel and McClung Cases. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Garrow, David. 1986. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Morrow.

Hensley, Thomas R.; Christopher E. Smith; and Joyce A. Baugh. 1997. The Changing Supreme Court: Constitutional Rights and Liberties. St. Paul: West.

Huie, William Bradford. 1997. He Slew the Dreamer: My Search, with James Earl Ray, for the Truth about the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. ed. Montgomery, AL: Black Belt.

Kluger, Richard. 2004. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf.

McMillan, George. 1976. The Making of an Assassin: The Life of James Earl Ray. Boston: Little, Brown.

Rosenberg, Gerald N. 2008. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

U. S. Department of Justice, United States Department of Justice investigation of recent allegations regarding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2000. Available from .

Wormser, Richard. 2003. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. New York: St. Martin’s.

Scott P. Johnson

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3241200555